The Public Safety Tipping Point: When Saving Money Loses Lives

You can only tell you're not spending enough on public safety when it’s too late.
by | September 1, 2013 AT 3:00 AM
flickr/Benson Kua

Recently my wife and I were strolling along the shore in Long Beach, N.Y., when a young woman ran up to us, thrust her sunglasses into my wife’s hands and dashed into the ocean. It took me a minute to realize that she was a lifeguard. She dove into each breaker as it came, swimming strongly straight toward a young man and a teenage girl quite a ways from shore. I wasn’t sure at first if they were just playing or in trouble, but the lifeguard knew. They were in trouble, especially the girl. We stood and waited as the three of them came to shore. Everyone was OK.

I was impressed. I had just seen a government employee do her job superbly. Aside from the strength and determination displayed by her swimming, it takes skill to watch hundreds of people in the water and identify, at a distance of many yards, someone who is in trouble. The job is important not just to the individuals assisted and their families, but to the economy of the city of Long Beach itself.

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Like many cities, Long Beach has financial problems and has been cutting spending and reducing the number of public employees—including, in this case, lifeguards. The money budgeted for lifeguards in Long Beach has been cut by more than 18 percent in the past year.

Not every city has a beach, but lifeguards are essentially public safety employees, just like cops and firefighters, which every city has. How many you need and how much to pay them is a tough call. If things are going well, you could be spending way more than needed and not really notice. In tough financial times, you can cut a little and maybe nothing bad happens. So you cut a little more.

Kansas City, Mo., is far from the ocean, but it has the Power and Light District, a downtown entertainment area on which the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars, hoping to boost the city’s economy just as the beach does in Long Beach. As mayor, I was often asked what else the city would do to support this huge investment. The suggested response was additional tax incentives, but it was clear to me that the most important thing the city could do was keep it safe. The city needed thousands of suburbanites to visit the district regularly, and any sign that it wasn’t safe would keep them away no matter how bright, glitzy and attractive we made it. To the extent that public safety expenditures were crowded out by money diverted to support tax incentives and debt service, the project’s fortunes would actually be harmed, not helped.

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So how low can you go in public safety? How many cops—or lifeguards—is too few? Essentially the only way to tell when you’re not spending enough on public safety is when it’s too late—bad things are happening. The Bannister Mall area in Kansas City was a flourishing retail and residential area in the 1990s, but an uptick in crime drove away shoppers. The first anchor store closed in 2000, and the rest left soon afterward. The mall was eventually demolished, and today the area is desolate.

And so the cycle goes. The number of cops—or lifeguards or firefighters or other first responders—is reduced and their pay and support is cut until a tipping point is reached. That rescued girl in Long Beach didn’t make the news, but she would have if she had drowned. When a family is deciding where to take their beach vacation or where to shop, the news that the place they’re thinking about is unsafe will send them elsewhere.

The first priority in taking care of the money is to spend it on what matters, and nothing matters more than public safety.