Closing Buffalo’s Budget Gap on the Backs of Black and Low Income Communities…

Dear Mayor Byron Brown, Members of the Common Council, Commissioner Byron Lockwood, and Commissioner Kevin Helfer, 

The undersigned members of the African American Health Equity Task Force and the Fair Fines + Fees Coalition appreciate the opportunity to comment on the Proposed 2020-21 Budget for the City of Buffalo. While we recognize the unprecedented budget challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has created for the City of Buffalo and other local governments across the country, we implore you to ensure that the budget you adopt does not place the burden of closing the budget gap on the backs of Buffalo’s African American community and low-income communities. 

As proposed, the City’s 2020-21 budget fails Buffalo’s most vulnerable Black residents and residents of low income. The Proposed Budget plans to bring in more than $3 million from traffic tickets. While budgeting $3.1 million in net revenue from traffic tickets is, on its face, race-neutral, we encourage you to look closely at whether that budget number is discriminatory in application. For example, if the Buffalo Police Department is focusing more patrols in poor Black neighborhoods, it follows that it would also be issuing more traffic tickets in those neighborhoods. The problem of the racialized impact of relying on fines and fees for revenue in Buffalo has been well documented by local investigative journalism over the past year and is currently being litigated. “The lawsuit cites a finding that drivers who live in majority Black neighborhoods in Buffalo were eight times more likely to receive multiple traffic tickets on a single stop than those living in majorityWhite neighborhoods, and four times more likely to have their license suspended for not paying tickets.” 

We support the Traffic Violations Agency’s mission “to cultivate responsible driving and pedestrian behaviors to reduce the number of traffic fatalities and severe injuries by deterring dangerous driving behavior through driver improvement education.” But their plan to increase total traffic tickets from 25,272 in 2018-19 to 27,000 in 2020-21 does not reflect success in their mission to reduce traffic fatalities and severe injuries. What it reflects is a nearly $400,000 increase in net revenue for the city. If the Traffic Violations Agency was successfully reducing traffic fatalities and severe injuries through driver improvement education, we should see the number of traffic tickets decreasing, not increasing. Further, the budget fails to include any assessment of the types of traffic tickets being issued. How many of these tickets were for a broken taillight or other minor infractions? And how many of those tickets were issued in neighborhoods where drivers were choosing between whether to feed their families and get their child new shoes or maintain their car? The Traffic Violations Agency has failed to explain how its proposed 2020-21 budget brings it closer to achieving its mission of reduced traffic fatalities and severe injuries “through driver improvement education.” These facts further prove that relying on fines and fees to enhance public safety does not work, and the city should utilize traffic calming strategies that does not pull people further into debt. 

The 2020-21 Police Budget contains an even grimmer picture of the situation. The Police Budget reflects 32,261 traffic summons issued in 2018-19 (not 25,272 reported by the Traffic Violations Agency) and projects a 7,000 increase to 40,000 traffic tickets issued in 2020-21.                             

First, we urge you to request that the Traffic Violations Agency and the Police reconcile their numbers, explain why their traffic ticket numbers vary so drastically, and provide the correct number with the corresponding budget impact before finalizing the budget. 

Second, we request that you ask for data from the Buffalo Police Department mapping where traffic tickets are issued. We suspect a large proportion of tickets are issued in predominantly Black neighborhoods and for matters that are not related to violations that could cause “traffic fatalities or severe injuries.” If this is the case, the pattern and practice of issuing tickets would be discriminatory in practice. We urge you revamp your approach to traffic fines and fees to eliminate any remaining structural racism in their design. 

We welcome the opportunity to further discuss these issues with individual Council Members or with the Council as a whole at your convenience. 

The groups signed below represent the Fair Fines + Fees Coalition:

Western New York Law Center, WNY Peace Center & Interfaith Peace Network, African American Health Equity Task Force, Partnership for the Public Good, Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition, Center for Constitutional Rights, Black Love Resists in the Rust, National Federation for Just Communities of WNY, National Center for Law and Economic Justice, VOICE-Buffalo, Citizens Action, Fines and Fees Justice Center, Prisoners Are People Too, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, Buffalo Information Sharing Collective.