By Dom Nozzi
“Three-quarters of San Jose’s [CA] discretionary spending goes to its public safety workers alone – police and fire fighters. The City has closed libraries, cut back on park services, laid off many civil servants and asked the rest to take pay cuts. By 2014, San Jose, the 10th largest city in the US, will be serviced by 1,600 public workers, one-third the number it had 25 years ago.” — Fareed Zakaria, Time Magazine, June 25, 2012.
Law enforcement and fire services are essential local government services. But in nearly all American cities, an excessive amount of the city budget is devoted to law enforcement and fire services. This leads to a “sub-optimizing” of law enforcement and fire services, which means that such an extreme amount of resources are devoted to these services that other essential community services are provided with inadequate amounts of resources. The end result of sub-optimizing, typically, is a net loss in achieving important overall community objectives.
Law enforcement and fire services in the city may be the best in the world, but the provision of dollars to other city services is so meager (due to the excess going to fire services) that the overall quality of life in the city is in a poor, downwardly-spiraling condition.
Gainesville FL, where I worked as a senior planner for 20 years, is an excellent example of the problem.
When I say “excessive,” I refer to a study I conducted where I compared the law enforcement and fire department budgets for Gainesville to that of several comparable cities throughout the nation. Gainesville had, by far, the highest per capita law enforcement and fire services expenditures of any comparable city.
This state of affairs occurred because for decades, Gainesville police and fire departments have been invariably getting all requested budget increases pretty much every year. A number of city and county commissioners I spoke to in the Gainesville area agreed with me that their budget allocations for police and fire have been excessive, but they feel helpless to do anything about it. They are unable, politically, to slow the growth in fire and police spending, even though these elected officials know that police and fire have long gotten excessive funding.
My research over the years has clearly shown that Gainesville is not alone in this sub-optimizing of police and fire. Nearly all communities have this problem in the US.
Again, when I conclude that police and fire expenditures by local government are excessive (given the above), I am NOT saying that law enforcement and fire protection are not important. Such a services are very important. My point is that it is highly likely that the politics of fear will lead us to sub-optimize on certain services (we spend too much on a service to the detriment of other services).
“If you don’t put another $20 million dollars into the fire department budget, babies will die in burning buildings!” Or “If you don’t give the police department another $15 million, your daughters will be mugged and raped!” These too-often-used scare statements are powerfully effective. How can elected officials not seem insensitive to public safety if they deny this request and instead put more dollars into, say, environmental restoration?
At some point, increased funding for a service leads to diminishing returns. At some point as more and more dollars are spent for the service, each additional dollar spent delivers less and less in the way of better law enforcement and better fire protection.
The federal government spends more on the military than the next eight highest military spending nations on earth COMBINED. When I join others in saying that this is excessive spending, I am NOT saying we should eliminate the military or that the military is not important. What I am saying is that the federal, state and local governments have limited dollars. If we spend too much on certain services, we starve other important services. It is disingenuous nonsense to suggest that those pointing out our expenditures for police or fire (or military) is excessive are, in other words, saying that we don’t value police or fire protection (or democracy). We all agree that such services are essential.
Elected officials are now (in 2012) screaming that the federal government is spending too much, but when reasonable suggestions are made to at least slow the growth in bloated military expenditures, elected officials tell us we must continue our decades long pattern of INCREASING military spending. That by calling for military spending cuts, such people making this suggestion don’t care about reducing terrorism or protecting democracy or having a strong national defense.
Again, this is nonsense.
What are examples of starved services that, like fire and police, provide important quality of life and safety services? A few examples: Environmental protection and restoration of environmentally degraded natural areas, road diets, traffic calming, efforts to reduce noise pollution, parks and recreation, health care, open space acquisition, town and regional planning, bus service, and bike and pedestrian paths, to name a few.
None of the above-mentioned starved services are more important, necessarily, than police and fire, but in my humble opinion, by cutting the budgets of each of these programs (and keeping their budgets tiny), communities in America have, on balance, seen their quality of life become much lower than it could have been had such services not been inadequately funded. Had these starved services gotten more funding (because we opted not to give fire and police a huge budget increase almost annually for several decades), the quality of life would be much higher in American communities.
As an aside, a recent study has found that when roads are widened to reduce fire truck response times (which is done regularly in the Gainesville area), there is an overall INCREASE in the number of injuries and deaths in a city. Why? Because the wider roads increase the in car crashes (due to higher car speeds caused by wider roads) far more than the reduction in the number of injuries and deaths caused by faster fire truck response times.
Yes, police and fire services are essential. But are they so essential that we should continue to allocate enormous sums of public money to them, and only pocket change to all other important public services (or eliminate them completely)? Should police and fire be the only public services provided by a community? Many folks on the Right think that, but I happen to believe there are other public services important enough to deserve a decent budget, rather than be starved.
Allocating a REASONABLE amount to police and fire (which means cutting their budgets drastically, given how much we have hysterically given them big budget increases for so long – like the Pentagon) does NOT mean that we think police and fire are not essential. It DOES mean that some of us don’t think police and fire are the ONLY legitimate public services.
We are starving services much more important to public safety and quality of life than the benefits we get from increasing spending for police and fire services by millions of additional dollars each year. It is time for American communities to recalibrate and rebalance their budget allocations so that police and fire services are not sub-optimized at the expense of other local government services essential to quality of life. In future years, giving less to fire and police services, and more to other essential services, is the effective path to a more pleasant future.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
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