Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority plans to layoff 20% of workforce

The Transit Police Department is bracing for layoffs of approximately 20 percent of its force as the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority begins coping with its staggering $15 million deficit.

The move could seriously affect safety of the remaining officers who patrol Metro Rail and other aspects of the NFTA system, according to the union representing the bulk of the 100-officer department.

"To me it presents a huge, huge problem not only for our officers but passengers," said Officer David Zarbo, president of the Transit Police Benevolent Association. "My concern is my patrolmen. Is there adequate manpower to back up guys for calls?"

NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel acknowledged that the Transit Police Department must absorb a major hit with the layoff of 20 officers, but she emphasized that new technology and redeployment of police manpower will maintain safety and security.

"I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize the safety of riders and the public," Minkel said. "Unfortunately, given current funding restraints, I have to make very difficult decisions."

The NFTA has been struggling for months to close a record budget gap following the elimination of much of its transit operating assistance from New York State. Part of the plan, Minkel said, is an authority-wide elimination of 50 positions aiming to reduce the deficit to $6.8 million. Even more layoffs will result if drastic service cuts are enacted, she acknowledged.

She said four police officers already have received layoff notices effective Dec. 4, with the rest to be laid off by March as part of an effort to save $2.1 million in the upcoming budget. She also said the layoffs will mostly affect the division that patrols Metro Bus and Rail because of federal mandates for staffing at the NFTA's Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

The move also is expected to cause one captain to bump down to a lieutenant's rank, four lieutenants to move down to patrol, and 20 patrol officers to lose their jobs. The authority also has canceled plans to form a new training class for rookie officers.

Minkel emphasized that staffing levels in the subway will be maintained, with most adverse effects to be realized by police investigation of bus accidents and incidents.

"We will be relying more on outside agencies for assistance on situations with buses," she said. "It will be more from an accident investigation standpoint, and not public safety exposure."

Other divisions within the Transit Police Department to be affected include its counterterrorism unit, which has grown in stature and sophistication following the 9/11 attacks. But that unit faced funding difficulties anyway, Minkel said, because of questions over continuation of Homeland Security funding.

Transit police sources say they also expect cutbacks in its juvenile detail, accident investigation, training, crime scene investigation and plainclothes details, but Minkel said she expects Transit Police Chief George W. Gast to work out details of how best to deploy officers to handle peak transit times.

She added that police will remain at full strength during peak hours, but will probably "pull back" on coverage during off-peak times. She also said she expects enhanced surveillance systems to pick up some of the slack.

"The amount of coverage remains. We can take advantage of technology from transit security grants that enhance cameras," Minkel said. "Twelve cameras can take the place of 12 officers."

The executive director noted that as recently as 2002, the Transit Police Department operated safely with 76 officers.

But Zarbo said the plan ignores the realities faced every day by frontline police officers.

"Everything imaginable happens in Buffalo and my department deals with them," he said. "My concern is my officers."

While NFTA commissioners recently asked the state to restore $10 million in transit assistance, Minkel said the realities of the situation led her and commissioners to seek new and drastic structural changes.

"Even if I got $10 million tomorrow, I still have budget difficulties looming into the following year," she said. "No matter what, we still have to make structural changes."

Acting NFTA Chairman Henry M. Sloma said the Transit Police Department must adapt to new realities.

"Based on an analysis by staff, this is an upward migration in staffing without a corresponding growth in demand," he said. "We have to try to right-size it. We're taking it back to the level of four years ago."

Indeed, transit police officials had taken pride in the growth of staffing and in its new levels of sophistication in recent years -- a far cry from when the force was created in 1984. But Sloma said those days now appear to have been relegated to the past.

"When the governor said everyone needed to share in the pain, everyone applauded; now we're feeling it," he said. "We just can't do business the way we were before."

But Zarbo of the PBA said he harbors safety fears on many levels, arguing that the authority should explore attrition and other methods before embracing the drastic step of layoffs.

"These are families trying to stay in Western New York," he said. "How can they now? They thought they were getting into careers and now that is being pulled right out from under them."

Source: Buffalo News