May Column: When the Numbers Lie

I often encourage my students at Canisius College to be suspicious of statistics, to question their source and the methods by which they are derived. As a county legislator, I try to practice what I preach. Allow me to elaborate.

One of the misleading statistics that catches my attention every couple years is the one that supports the contention that Buffalo is the third poorest city in America. The problem with this statistic is that Buffalo and other cities in New York State are compared to cities in other states. What is wrong with this? Well, for starters cities in many other states can easily annex their suburbs. Dallas, for instance, increases its land mass by leaps and bounds every year. This means that the wealthier folks who flee to the suburbs are pulled back into the City. By contrast, New York State makes it very difficult for cities to annex their suburbs. Imagine what would happen if Buffalo annexed Amherst. For one thing, it would no longer be the third poorest city in America. That is not to say that the plight of the poor in Buffalo would be any different. It would just look better. I am not arguing, by the way, for easier annexation. I am just pointing out that the statistic can be deceptive.

Another thing that makes me cringe is when people try to deceive us by citing average costs, rather than marginal ones. They will tell us that we can save all kinds of money by supporting a program to lower the number of inmates in the jail by a few because it costs $20,000 or $30,000 per year to keep them imprisoned. The problem is that those are average costs computed by dividing the total costs of the facility by the number of inmates. Reducing the jail population by a few, however, does not have much of an impact on cost, certainly not tens of thousands of dollars. We would not, for instance, reduce the number of corrections officers, the heat or the lights. The only actual savings might be a few dollars on food and water. What we really need to focus on is the marginal cost for an inmate. Having said this, I have supported some of these programs in the past because they were the right thing to do, not because of the supposed cost savings.

While on the general topic of numbers, let me update you on some numbers that won’t lie. Back in March, I gave a presentation at the City of Tonawanda Library on different forms of taxation with special emphasis on property taxes and assessments. It went fairly well. So I am taking my show on the road to Brighton Place, 999 Brighton Road in the Town of Tonawanda on Tuesday, June 12th from 7-8:30 p.m. The educational presentation is free and open to the public. If you are interested in attending please call Susan Gregg in my office at 858-8672 for a reservation.

If you have thoughts you would like to share, I would love to hear from you. I can be contacted by phone at 858-8672 or via email at

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