Home Sponsored Content A Message from City Hall: Pandemic and Police

A Message from City Hall: Pandemic and Police

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As this is published, we’ll all be at the beginning of our 18th week of various pandemic-related measures with the Governor’s state of emergency extended until July 15th. The City is now facing a projected $1.4 million revenue shortfall for the FY21 budget. The City Council was presented with a staff proposal to address this situation, which represents about 10 percent of the overall budget.

What does this mean? It means that the city is not raising taxes or rates to make up for any shortfall. It means that some services and programs may not function at full capacity. It means that some planned infrastructure projects won’t happen this summer. Public safety services will remain at near full capacity.

Projected reductions in PILOT, local options taxes, ambulance fees, state highway aid, license fees, and permits total $775,000. Additional potential carry-over pressure from FY20 and program user fees total $367,500. Finally, projected parking revenue loss is $265,220. All of this adds up to $1,408,620. These numbers, of course, are subject to change based on a wide variety of factors including the economy, decisions of the legislature, or changes in COVID-19 operating guidance.

What is being cut? Equipment from Police, DPW, Fire/EMS, Recreation, and Cemetery is being delayed for a total of $336,500. Personnel costs including hiring freeze or position reductions, delayed/eliminated pay increases, and furlough extensions for a total of $572,075. Capital projects delayed including Cummings Street water/sewer lines and street rebuild, Hubbard Street retaining wall, and Barre Street and Loomis Street sectional repairs for $366,470. Operations reductions throughout various departments for $60,350. Appropriations to community groups including the Montpelier Development Corporation, the Montpelier Arts Committee, the Housing Trust Fund, the Homelessness Task Force, and the cancelled July 3 celebration totaling $73,250. In all these budget reductions represent $1,408,645.

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Are these cuts permanent? They are not intended to be. Revenues will be reviewed on a quarterly basis. If receipts are better than projected we will add things back in. Many of the projects and equipment could be done in the second half of the fiscal year (January to June of 2021). Staff will be brought back gradually.

The real challenge will be the FY22 budget. By November and December we should all have a better idea of how the pandemic is playing out. Are we moving toward some degree of normalcy or are we looking at permanent changes in our services and local expectations?

Another community impact is the City Council’s emergency order requiring face masks in all public indoor locations. This has been mostly successful. We remain disappointed in the handful of individuals and businesses who have chosen noncompliance.

The Council enacted three measures designed to assist downtown businesses. One is allowing use of sidewalks for restaurant seating or merchandise display (as long as five feet of usable sidewalk space remains), the second is allowing an unlimited amount of parking spaces for parklets during 2020 with an accelerated approval process, and the third is blocking one side of Langdon Street to allow expanded seating and commerce in the street.

Parking is another area of conversation. The city eliminated all parking fees and fines (except for accessible spaces, fire lanes/hydrants, etc.) in March. With businesses reopening, parking spaces are starting to fill and many by the same vehicles all day long. We will likely restart meter regulated parking on or around August 1. This would come with an early re-education period, waived fees for parklets, and, potentially, free or reduced price parking in lots. We are also thinking about having more 15-minute spaces to accommodate take out and curbside.

Policing

Discussions about the role of the Police in Montpelier, in Vermont, and in the country have continued. The City Council has set aside their meeting of August 26 to talk through some of the many concerns and questions people have raised.

Police Chief Brian Peete has been holding a series of community conversations, some in person and some on line. He seeks to hear from Montpelier residents about their impressions of the Montpelier Police Department. He has also been answering questions about his goals and vision for the department, his philosophy on policing, and his opinions on controversial issues.

In preparation for the meeting on August 26, here is some basic information oriented around requests made to the City Council. I’ll include more in the August edition of The Bridge. These comments are mine and may not reflect those of the City Council.

— Remove police officers from the Montpelier school system. This will be, ultimately, a School Board decision. One discussion was already held on July 1. It will be important to understand the purpose and goals of the School Resource Officer position. The City and Police department welcome the conversation and will provide any information that is helpful to the process.

— Permanently reduce the number of police officers immediately, starting with those who have used excessive force. Montpelier has one of the smallest departments (17 sworn officers) for a city of our size and activity level. Other than particular events, the city usually has only 2–4 patrol personnel on duty at any given time. The City has as many firefighters as police officers. No Montpelier officers have been found to have used excessive force.

— Pass a resolution banning the procurement of military equipment and surveillance technology. The MPD has not requested or received any military equipment from the Department of Defense, more specifically the 1033 program, in the last 15 years. The city does not use military technology or surveillance. We use cruiser videos to record interactions and incidents. There is a state and national push for body-worn cameras, which the City and MPD support.

— Disarm the police. As long as guns are readily available in Vermont and the U.S., police officers will be called into dangerous situations. Obviously guns and other tools are not needed in most of the interactions that officers have. However, the occurrence of violent calls and necessary response is completely unpredictable.

— Divert funding from the disproportionately large police budget into the under-funded, volunteer-based Montpelier Community Justice Center. The department’s budget is not disproportionately large. The Community Justice Center is a state-funded program. We fully agree that the state should increase funding for this and all other social service programs (see graph below).

Here is how all local funds are allocated for the FY21 budget before the recent adjustments. Equipment and capital funds are allocated to the appropriate areas. This includes education, city general fund, water fund, sewer fund, parking fund, and district heat fund.

— Arrange for budget shortfall resulting from COVID-19 to come exclusively out of police budget, as not to disrupt other services that the City provides. The FY20 and FY21 COVID-related budget adjustments have already been made as discussed earlier. The police department shifted funding for one officer to a state task force and delayed funding for a new cruiser.

— Police unions keep officers from facing consequences. Decertify and disband the police union and do not enter into any further collective bargaining agreements with organizations that represent the police. A municipal employer may not decertify a police union on its own. Also, the Municipal Employee Relations Act does not allow a municipal employer to file a petition to decertify a union. A municipal employer is required to bargain in good faith with a union representing employees with the intent to enter into a collective bargaining agreement. If the Labor Relations Board determines that an employer violates the duty to bargain in good faith, the Board concludes that an employer commits an unfair labor practice and orders an appropriate remedy.

— Work toward creating new structures of justice, emergency response, and conflict resolution with the ultimate goal of abolishing the police. The City and MPD absolutely support additional resources for mental health services, social workers, alcohol/drug addiction counseling, domestic violence, poverty prevention, homelessness services, housing, and the like.

Thank you for reading this article and for your interest in Montpelier City Government. Please contact me at wfraser@montpelier-vt.org or 802-223-9502 with any questions or comments.