Mayor Michael Bloomberg has presented New York City with a budget plan which calls for sacrifices in just about all areas of civic life.
The cuts were not unexpected. Even if the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center had never happened the city would still be in serious financial straits. Sooner or later what comes up must inevitably come down and the stock market is no exception. We're in for some belt-tightening and in some cases this may even be a good thing. "Most cases," however, do not include the agencies responsible for public safety, most notably the Police Department.
The mayor's plans include a 7 percent bite out of the Police Department budget. "It's not symbolic—this is a significant cut," Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly noted. It's unclear what programs the Police Department budget cuts will affect, but we can think of several that will more than likely be seriously diminished in impact. We don't know for sure at this point, but it would seem logical to assume that programs such as the Explorers, which introduces young people age 14 to 21 to the possibility of a career in law enforcement, auxiliary police and civilian observation patrols may face cutbacks—not a pleasant prospect. Precinct community councils in many cases already run fund-raising campaigns to provide officers with equipment such as bulletproof vests and bicycles designed for patrol duty expressly to relieve the force of some of its financial burden. It stands to reason that these organizations will be asked to do still more to take up the slack caused by the budget slashing.
Of even greater significance are the proposed cuts in personnel. The Police Department is expected to decrease its ranks by 1,600 officers through attrition. Even though the 38,100-member force will increase its ranks by 1,010 officers when a new class graduates from the Police Academy in July, the force will still be short of the 40,710 officers it has maintained for the past two years. And in some cases, even a police force at its largest numbers in the city's history has not made citizens feel safer.
Even with the department at its peak, many precincts in Queens have been seriously understaffed for years. Staffing levels established under former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone's Safe Streets/Safe City program were never achieved in some precincts. What's more, on many occasions we've heard police officers themselves as well as many concerned civilians remark that any special event taking place anywhere in the city means officers will be pulled away from local precincts, in some cases leaving Queens communities dangerously bereft of police.
One reason the crime rate dropped precipitously during most of the last decade was the rising number of police. A decrease in the number of officers, even if, as has been proposed, some 800 civilians are hired to replace officers now on desk duty, will result in at least the perception that New York City is a more dangerous place to live or visit. This will not help the New York City economy. Residents who move away because they fear rising crime rates will decrease the tax base. Tourists who choose some other destination will contribute nothing to the travel and entertainment industry. Nearly all aspects of life in New York City will be affected.
We're willing to do our bit to help the city through the tough times that lie ahead. But we think some caution has to be exercised when wielding the budget axe. Protecting the people who live here and pay taxes for the privilege is a primary duty of civic government. Fiscal stability cannot come at the expense of public safety.