Tensions were high at Monday night’s city council meeting, as council members confronted Mayor Don Gough about the low police staffing levels.
When the council passed the 2011-2012 budget late last year, it provided funding for 71 officers. That’s down from 80 prior to 2011. Since that time, seven officers have left for other departments and two more are in active background testing with a neighboring city, Deputy Chief Bryan Stanfier said. He calls the situation dire.
“By way of an example, it was about two weeks ago. I don’t even want to tell you the staffing levels we were running on the street. I think it would cause great consternation with our citizens,” Stanifer told the council. “Suffice it to say, I’ve been here over twenty-some years — we’re at staffing levels that pre-date that.”
“You factor in when somebody goes to court, somebody gets sick, somebody’s on vacation, it’s atrocious,” he added.
Many council members lashed out at Mayor Gough for not responding to the chief’s request to fill vacant positions that were authorized in the budget (listen to some audio excerpts below.)
“My perception of what’s going on, and you can correct me, is that you’re just ignoring the situation by not responding,” Council Vice President Kerri Lonergan-Dreke told the mayor. “It’s not okay with me that we’re leaving public safety, which citizens demand the most, in the state that it’s currently in.”
Longtime Councilman Jim Smith was pointed in his remarks to the mayor.
“I think that you are destroying the city. I think this is the point, and we’ve been pussy-footing around way too long on this thing,” he said. “The department is not being supported because we’re losing cops.”
City officials and the police guild cite low morale and job insecurity as the prime reasons for the exodus of officers.
“The morale is down about as low as it is possible to get. That should frighten the hell out of you, that we are so vulnerable in our public safety and our policing services. We’re talking about people’s lives,” Councilman Jim Smith added.
Mayor Gough says he would like to hire more officers, but the money simply is not there. He said revenue from the increased utility taxes has not come in yet, and sales tax revenue is flat.
“It is not irresponsible to not hire people when you don’t have money to hire people on a permanent, filled basis,” Gough said.
He said there is millions of dollars available from the sale of city property, but he’s been instructed by the council not to use it because it was intended to pay back money that was borrowed to solve the budget shortfall last year.
“Your policies say you are not to use one-time monies for ongoing expenses. But when I’m following your policy and then I just get the heck beat out of me…. and we shouldn’t go into the red. How many times have I heard that?” Gough told the council.
“I know that you all want it. I would like it to have it. Do you think I’m having any fun having to sit here?” he said.
Here’s where things stand now. A work group meeting will be held tonight to continue to discuss police staffing levels, as well as overcrowding at the court and jail facilities.
Then on Tuesday, July 26, the council will receive an update on city finances to find out how much, if any, funding is available to hire more officers. We’ll cover both meetings.