The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 4b: Public Health & Public Safety (with Focus on Police) Spending in the Garden State

This is a post in a series about NJ's User Friendly Budget. My intent is to share basic analysis and insights with community as a way to encourage taxpayers to engage with this document and learn more about local public finance. Read the other posts in this series here including how to access your town's UFB and the UFB's table of contents.

This is a follow-up post to my previous post about how to dive into your city budget and understand the basic structure of expenses. In this post I explored a basic comparison of spending between Health & Human Services and Public Safety. My basic question is: we're in the midst of both a pandemic and public dialog about police can the User Friendly Budget help us better understand these two issues -- what data can we glean from this document?

A caveat here -- I'm an accountant comfortable navigating a public budget; but I'm neither a health & human services nor a public safety expert. So my view (and this post) is limited in scope, focused on what the public budget data can tell us. I've also included interactive Tableau visualizations to allow you do your own data digging and analysis if you want.

Upfront Observations

I was struck by how much public money is spent on Public Safety (and specifically Police) versus how much is spent on Health & Human Services. Looking at the totality of municipal budget data shows us that, for NJ's 565 municipalities:

I recognize there are reasons why the current paradigm looks the way it does, though I defer to others - experts in public policy, healthcare, public safety - to help inform that context.  What I will assert however is: the public budget helps inform the current paradigm in very clear, and concrete terms for taxpayers. It's a helpful set of facts to anchor around.

Where the data comes from

I gathered this data by diving into two areas of government spending that are itemized in the User Friendly Budget:

  • Health & Human Services - which includes Animal Control, Board of Health and various health, human services and social services programs for veterans, senior citizens, teens or other groups.
  • Public Safety - which includes 911 Communications, Police, Fire, Ambulance/Rescue, Emergency Management and any other public safety costs. I want to specifically dive into Police and Fire costs.

To learn about these costs, we can use two worksheets within the User Friendly Budget:

  1. "UFB-3 Appropriations Summary" - which itemizes 23 structural areas of expense including Health & Human Services and Public Safety.
  2. "UFB-7 Personnel Costs" - which itemizes personnel data including two major buckets of spending within Public Safety: Fire and Police.

"UFB-3 Appropriations Summary": Top-level view of "Public Safety"

This is the structural expense summary that I wrote about in my last post, which lists 23 standardized (every municipality uses them) categories of expense including Health & Human Services and Public Safety.

"UFB-7 Personnel Costs": Drilling into Public Safety Costs Associated with Police & Fire

These are details about Personnel Costs -- where we can itemize the personnel costs associated with two major personnel costs within Public Safety: Police & Fire.

Digging into Garden State Data: Comparisons of Public Health vs Public Safety

Let's start out with a very basic comparison. A pictures's worth a thousand words, so let's look at a simple side-by-side visual which shows the percentage of total budget used by each of these buckets of services:  on the left -- percentage of total municipal budget spent on Health & Human Services. And, on the right -- percentage of total municipal budget spent on Public Safety. The larger the dot, the larger the percentage of total budget consumed.

A few observations on this data:

  • Lots of Towns Show Similar Spending Patterns. New Jersey is a "home rule" state that prides itself on small town governments up and down the Turnpike and Parkway, yet there's an interesting pattern of local spending across the state: generally lower proportional investment in public health, versus generally higher proportional investment in public safety.
  • Health & Human Services. The data shows us that most towns in NJ (557 out of 565, or 98%) spend 3% or less of their total municipal budget on health and human services. Only eight towns spend marginally more, between 3% and 7% of the total budget.
  • Public Safety. Public Safety, on the other hand, receives a higher proportion of the total budget for most towns and cities. Out 565 total towns and cities, 401, or 71%, direct 20% or more of the total budget to Public Safety.

Now let's drill into Public Safety to get a view of Police- and Fire-specific costs.

Drilling into "Public Safety" to See Police-Specific Personnel Costs

We can dig into Public Safety and get a closer look at Police-specific costs using the "UFB-7 Personnel Costs" tab.  This view is a slightly different lens from the "UFB-3 Appropriations Summary." Personnel (people) cost including base salary, overtime, pension, healthcare, and employment tax.  The budget provides 6 buckets of personnel cost:

  • Governing Body
  • Supervisory Staff
  • Police Officers
  • Fire Fighters
  • All Other Union Employees
  • All Other Non-Union Employees

Both Police and Fire are grouped into Public Safety. I was curious how each of these services - Police and Fire - consumed public dollars, e.g. do towns and cities generally pay more for Police? Or for Fire?  So  so I created a side-by-side comparison. Once again, the larger the dot, the larger the percentage of total personnel cost consumed.

A few observations on this data:

  • Over 80% of NJ's municipalities (462 towns or cities, viewable here) fund local police departments through the city budget. There could be various reasons for this; for example, Camden is one of those 103 towns but its police service is funded at the county level (thus police costs won't appear in the city budget).
  • Only 27% of NJ's municipalities (150 towns or cities, viewable here) fund local fire departments through the city budget. Again, various reasons may exist for this including volunteer fire departments. For instance, my hometown of Florham Park has a paid police department but a volunteer fire department.

This is a simple aggregation exercise - seeing where public dollars are added up using line items across 565 city budgets. But it's informing to see the patterns across the state, namely that, as local communities, we invest a lot in policing, but not a lot in public health. These investments are choices that we make, as communities, when our elected leadership pass our local municipal budgets.

Context Abounds

Finally, I'd be remiss not to share that context abounds, and we should endeavor to understand that context.  The elected should help drive and inform the conversation. For example, some city employees are unionized and as such subject to labor agreements, the contents of which are also touched upon in the User Friendly Budget (for example: data related to accumulated absences are viewable in the "UFB-9 Accum. Absence Liability" tab of the budget). Elected leadership must approve these contracts, thus can help shed insight into how and why they are structured the way they are.

The User Friendly Budget is a very useful starting point to understand how our local government is using our collective purse. As such, these budget files can and should serve as a launch point into more nuanced dialog and debate.

Public Data - Compiled

For ease of reference, I've provided the maps above, along with the accompanying data in tabular format, below. I also have links to my source data - available in Google Sheets - below.

    Health & Human Services Data - View in Tableau

    Public Safety Data - View in Tableau

    Fire vs. Police Personnel Costs - View in Tableau

    Fine print about the source data:

    1. All User Friendly Budgets are available from the NJ Department of Community affairs website here.
    2. I downloaded all available User Friendly Budgets from the NJ DCA website and then used a VBA script to compile select data from each file for analysis. Read more about the this process in my previous post, "The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 3: Understanding the Source Data & How the Statewide Dataset was Compiled"
    3. You can view my dataset, and learn more about how this data was compiled, in Google Sheets here.
    4. While I have reviewed this data thoroughly and done my best to squeeze out all errors in the data compilation process,  errors and omissions may occur on my end. My visualizations are intended to be a starting point, and it’s good practice (especially if you are an advocate) to trace your research back to your town’s source (original) file from your own website (look in the list above if you don’t know your town’s website) or the NJ Depart of Community Affairs website.

    Check out the other posts in this series:

    1. The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 1: Intro to the Series & How to Access the UFB
    2. The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 2: What’s in the User Friendly Budget?
    3. The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 3: the “Cover Page”, an Inventory of NJ’s 565 Municipalities, & An Overview of How UFB Data was Compiled
    4. The “User Friendly Budget”, Part 4a: View Your Town’s Structural Spending with the “UFB-3 Appropriations Summary” Data

    Up Next

    In my next post, I'll take a look at how we can use the User Friendly Budget to determine if your town may need a revaluation.

    Please keep in touch with questions if you have them at [email protected].

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