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City Council, February 12

Mayor gets a tax hike, but less than that sought
Funding for extra police on King and Market still an issue
Marc Knapp

There was a lot said at last night’s meeting. The issue was over a plan to raise the City’s millage rate to pay for improving public safety. Specifically, the Mayor wanted to hire more police and firefighters, and to build and equip two new fire stations. The burden for this year was projected at $3.66 million but presumably will rise after this year. Most of the discussion focused over the plan to increase police protection of the City’s schools. And in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, such a focus was understandable and appropriate. But in the light of future spending, the concentration should have been on the Fire department.

We are not suggesting that anything was hidden by the City. The presentations by the Police and Fire department Chiefs were full, and CFO Bedard and Mayor Riley answered all questions. But in our view the emotional pull rather than reason won the day. No Council member who spoke against the millage increase opposed increasing the safety of children at school. They all thought that there could be better ways to fund it. Council members Alexander and White sought a deferral of the issue but came short by one vote. Their efforts brought some unfair and cruel criticism from some Council members.

Council member Moody was the first to speak on the issue when it came before Ways and Means. Strangely, the item was the last to be discussed in the evening. Council member Seekings was detained by business and the Chair consented to defer the hearing until his arrival. Council member Moody moved that the millage rate be raised by 3.5 mills, not the 4 proposed. He said that 8 of the police officers to be hired were for increased coverage of the King and Market Street areas. Monies relating to covering this cost should not come from the General Fund. As other Council members also remarked later, funding could come from Hospitality Fee and the Accommodation Tax Funds. My colleague Warwick Jones suggested this in Citizen’s Participation. Respectively, the budgets for 2013 were $12 million and $4 million. Revenues of both should grow in subsequent years and the purpose of the funds lent themselves to financing the police presence on King and Market. New hotels and restaurants, particularly on Upper King Street, had boosted “street activity”. And from the videos that Police Chief Mullen showed, there was no doubt in any viewers mind that in the late hours, of the week end particularly, it was an exercise in crowd control.

Council ultimately accepted the “Moody” amendment. But nobody asked why the millage rate did not fall further. Of the $3.6 million sought this year by the City, $2.18 million related to hiring extra police. Taking out the 8 new police positions proposed for King and Market, the new police hires fall 30% to 19. Everything else being equal, the cost for police should fall by 30% to $1.52 million and the new proposed spending for Fire and Police, by 20% to $2.9 million. Under the Moody amendment, the proposed millage rate increase falls 4 to 3.5. On the face of it, it ought to fall to about 3.2. But of course, spending this year will be contained within only 9 months or so. A full year would be more.

It is clear that the proposed expansion of the Fire department will cost more than the annual $1.5 million in the amendment considered last night. Two new stations are to be constructed - at Bees Ferry and Cainhoy. The cost of the extra land, construction and hiring of the 15 firefighters will fall largely into budgets beyond 2013. But as CFO Bedard said last night, the City most likely will issue bonds to cover capital costs and use funds from the millage increase to cover interest and amortization.

A number of Council members opined that the investment in the proposed Fire stations should have been in the 2013 Budget, or indeed earlier budgets. These are opinion I would heartily endorse. And it is a reflection on the competence of the City that the issues were not addressed sooner. That the issue came up last night reflected the completion of a study by Fire Chief Brack, aimed to bring the department up to a higher standard. The construction and hiring will bring most parts of the City within a 4 minutes response time.

No Council member took issue with the Mayor or the Fire Chief over the plans and cost of the new projects. Although Some Council members sought a deferral of the whole issue, it seemed to us they looked to make cuts in other areas to fund the needed expenses rather than impose a tax increase.

Predictably, the issue of increased police protection for schools brought out a lot of citizens to speak in Citizen’s Participation. All spoke in favor and few had any issue with an increase in the millage rate. Interestingly, the Mayor did not attempt to cut the time allowed for comments. When there are lots of speakers, he cuts the time to less than the normal 3 minutes. Notwithstanding, comments were generally short and with few long speeches.

Police Chief Mullen made a presentation about his plans for the schools. He talked of layers of protection at the schools - private and public - and the clustering of police to act in response to threats. He said the assignment of a single police officer to a single school had its draw backs. Better to have “clusters” of policed dedicated to schools within the cluster zone. He said that response times would be quicker and support always ready. With the assignation of only a single officer, a school would remain vulnerable if the officer is a victim of an attack. Each cluster zone would be manned by a number of officers, dedicated solely to covering the schools. Officers would be expected to get familiar with the schools, and to know staff and pupils. Their surveillance would be random only so no potential intruder would be able to discern a pattern to aid the execution of a plan. They would also help in forming and defining the layers of security – walls, doors, buildings etc.

Council members only had good words for the Chief and complimented him on the plan. Council member White asked why the Resource Officers presently assigned to some schools could not be used as part of the complement manning the Clusters. The Chief said it was not possible, because each had different duties. Most of the other questions from Council members related to funding the plan. Some thought the School District should fund the police, or pick up at least part of the funding. Presently, the School District picks up only 25% of the total cost of the officer and the City 75%. There was also a State initiative for funding police at schools. shouldn’t council wait to see what the State decides? And some Council members said that if policing the schools were such a high priority, shouldn’t Council go back and look at the General Fund spending and divert funds from projects deemed less important? Some Council members noted that all but a very few of the constituents who contacted them were opposed to a millage increase.

Mayor Riley lectured those Council members who spoke of the views of their constituents and said that members had been elected to do what was best for the community. And Council member Gregorie feigned shock that any Council member could draw back from supporting the amendment because of the added cost of less than 10 cents a day to citizens tax bills. What he did not consider is the fact that most dwellings have two vehicles that are assessed at a six percent rate which causes the effective rate on the vehicles to rise by an effective 5.25 mills. Council member Alexander responded by saying it would cost a lot of businesses a lot more than 10 cents a day and sufficient to impact their decision on hiring. Council member Wilson also noted that the tax increase coincided with increases in Federal taxes, and other costs such as insurance. The small increases added up to a burden which many could not offset with higher income. She also added that it was all very well to take these security measures for schools but where was it going? What about other institutions such as old age homes?

Those who voted for the millage increase, and with the “Moody” amendment were the Mayor and Council members Gregorie, Lewis, Waring, Mitchell, Riegel and Moody.

Although the issue of funding of the extra police to cover King and Market Streets was agreed upon – i.e. not from the General Fund – not all Council members were happy. Chief Mullen noted the importance of placing extra police on these streets and until there was funding for the new recruits, officers would be drawn from the Community Action Teams (CAT). This irked Council member Lewis who considered the presence of the CATs very important to City neighborhoods. He was probably right.

But we would also register our surprise at the videos shown by Chief Mullen of the street activity. He said that the clips were taken in August last year when the College of Charleston was still on break. Wow! It looked bad enough in the clips. But with 12,000 students back in town, it has to be worse.

We commented last month on the success the City in revitalizing Upper King Street. But did the City want so much success? Some major developments are soon to be completed in the Upper King/Meeting Street areas, and one in particular is a large multi-apartment complex. The street scene is going to get even more active. The fear of Council member Lewis in relation to CAT teams may be founded. But inadequate cover of King and Market streets has to be a greater fear.

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