Pennsylvania city, where 25% live in poverty, debates police funding

In a city where the median household income is $38,655 and 1-in-4 residents live in poverty, the top-paid police officer in Pennsylvania's fifth-largest city made more than $159,000 in 2021.

And it wasn't the chief.

The city of Erie, population 94,831 in the 2020 census, is engrossed in citywide debate about the cost of law enforcement. Police spending is projected to increase 28% from 2019 to 2022, according to city budget documents. The city projects it will spend $38.8 million on policing in 2022. The police and fire departments spending makes up 66% of the city’s general fund expenses.

Spending on public safety is increasing and Mayor Joseph Schember wants to hire 13 more officers and six detectives as part of a $14.1 million plan to use federal coronavirus relief money to pay for it. That comes at a time when city budget documents show the city’s general fund was in deficit in 2021 and is projected to continue to be in the red from 2022 through 2026. The city projects its general fund will be $8.7 million in deficit by 2026.

The city stated in 2021 that it cost $191,000 on average to fund one police officer with 14 years of service, the average amount on the force. That included a base wage of $86,916 and $104,200 in benefits and other costs. That figure would go higher if overtime were included.

There were 30 employees of the police department who made $20,000 or more in overtime in 2021, according to city documents. One police officer made $68,992 in overtime in 2021, pushing gross pay to $159,345. Another police officer’s overtime was $60,935 with a gross pay of $147,724. By comparison, the police chief’s gross pay was $117,541.

Nathan Benefield, senior vice president at the conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation think tank, questioned using one-time federal relief money for long-term expenses such as police officers.

“It’s unwise to use one-time funds for ongoing costs. It raises a key question as to how the city would continue to pay for these officers in the future,” Benefield said.

City Council Member Chuck Nelson referred to an op-ed he wrote in the local newspaper about police funding when contacted by The Center Square.

"In Erie, there’s no budget growing as fast as police," Nelson said in his op-ed in the Erie Times-News. " ... No one in this region funds police like we do in the city of Erie! People move to avoid funding police with their taxes like we do."

Police Chief Dan Spizarny, Mayor Joseph Schember and City Council Member Maurice Troop did not respond to emails seeking comment.

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