Enquirer Herald

York splits on decision to delay hiring more police, firefighters

After hearing detailed pleas about the need for more public safety workers from law enforcement officials and its fire chief, York City Council members split 4-3 in approving a budget with no tax or fee hikes and no added staff.

In a final vote last week, the council reaffirmed its first unanimous vote on Aug. 6 to approve a $6.6 million bare-bones spending plan for the budget year beginning Oct. 1, with no new taxes or fees and no added staff. The council said it would reexamine staffing issues in January.

But three council members — Denise Lowry, Charles Johnson and Ed Brown — were opposed, saying they could not support that decision after hearing about needs in the police and fire department.

Mayor Eddie Lee and council members Mark Boley, Bill Miller and Mike Fuesser voted to approve the budget.

“I don’t feel good about it,” said Lowry, referring to the decision to put off the debate about hiring more staff. Lowry said she wished the council had received more detailed information about police and fire staffing needs last month, when it took the initial budget vote.

The council last month debated, but did not support, a budget scenario proposed by City Manager Charles Helms that would add three firefighters and two police officers, with an increase in property taxes and garbage fees.

Under that scenario, residential property taxes would increase by $16 per year on a $100,000 house, Helms said. In addition, the monthly garbage collection rate paid by residents would rise from $9.01 to $9.91 and the monthly landfill dumping fee would go up from $6.30 to $7.25, he said.

Helms said the tax increases would generate about $100,000 in new revenue, and the garbage fees would raise about $82,000. That money could be used to hire the five additional employees, he said.

After hearing more about the police and fire staffing needs during a Sept. 3 meeting, Lowry and Johnson asked Helms if the city had any money to add staff. Helms said it has about $51,000 in a reserve fund.

Johnson suggested using the reserve money to add a position, but Boley said the council should avoid touching its reserves.

Boley noted the city has invested money in equipment purchases for several years, and “maybe it’s time for the city in the next budget to start edging away from the infrastructure and start focusing on personnel.”

Sixteenth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett and York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant joined the debate about police staffing by asking the council before the vote to hire another narcotics officer.

Brackett and Bryant told council members that York could make a significant dent in reducing its overall crime with one more narcotics officer — bringing to two the number of York police officers assigned to work with the county’s multijurisdictional drug unit.

In the proposal to increase staffing, Helms said, one of two added police officers would have been a narcotics officer, while the other position would increase patrol staffing at night.

Brackett said York had two narcotic officers assigned to the county drug unit until 2006, when the city cut back to one. When the drug unit was formed in 1998, Brackett said, York committed to two narcotic officers, and at one point the city had three narcotics officers.

“It will pay rich dividends,” Brackett said of the additional narcotics officer, adding that many violent crimes are linked to drugs. “It is critical and I hope you will give it serious consideration.”

Bryant agreed. “You’ll get a whole lot more bang from your buck with one more narcotics officer,” he told the council. “We are not asking you to go to three officers, but we would like York to have two.”

Brackett said Fort Mill, with a population of 11,000, has two narcotics officers, while York, with a population of almost 8,000, has only one narcotics officer but double the crime rate of Fort Mill.

“The crimes that I’m talking about, they all spiral off from drugs,” Brackett said.

Brackett said Clover, with a population of about 5,000, has one narcotics officer, while Rock Hill and the York County Sheriff’s Department have seven narcotics officers each.

Fire Chief Dominic Manera also addressed the council about the need for firefighters. “It has become a critical time,” Manera told the council. “The situation has progressively gotten worse.”

Manera said the nine-member fire department has three daytime staff members, including himself, who are certified firefighters, plus two firefighters on each of its three 24-hour shifts. However, he said there is no staff backup after 5 p.m., when the three daytime staff members leave.

The department has about 24 volunteer firefighters, he said, but volunteer response is inconsistent and training varies. He showed figures to illustrate that the most consistent response to calls is from new, untrained volunteers, while response from more seasoned trained volunteers falls off over time.

Manera told the council that two firefighters at a structure fire or car accident with entrapment “cannot be handled efficiently.”

He added: “I’m just trying to get us to a point where we can be safe and do our jobs.”

He said the safety of the city’s firefighters is a concern. He also said that under an agreement with the county, the York department is dispatched to any structure fire call in eight adjacent volunteer fire departments.

“We have been to the Chester County line, and we’ve been to Blacksburg, cutting people out of automobiles because we are the closest people who can go,” Manera told the council.

In the 27-member police department, down from 32 officers several years ago, Helms said the city has four officers on each of four patrol shifts. One of the two night shifts normally has five officers, he said, but is down to four because one officer is on an extended military leave.

Helms said sometimes patrol officers are absent or not available for patrol duty due to vacations, sickness, law enforcement training or the need to go to court or transport prisoners. He said the police department aims to have at least three officers on each shift, with Police Chief Andy Robinson and his captain providing backup to the day patrol shift when officers are absent.

During a public hearing before the final budget vote, local business owner Robert Winkler urged the council to raise taxes or fees to generate new revenue to invest in running the city.

“I don’t know how the city can continue to operate, day to day, on the same budget they’ve had for years,” said Winkler, president of the Greater York Chamber of Commerce. “You can only squeeze something for so long before you have to look somewhere, or do something.”

Lee repeatedly insisted that January would be a good time to examine staff needs and discuss how to pay for them. However, several other council members asked what would be different in January, noting that the council can only raise taxes and fees once a year.

“There are needs in every department,” Lee said after the meeting.

He alluded to fees generated by economic development, but said there are other possible sources of revenue, including state funding. After an audit is completed this fall, he said, the city will have a better idea how much money is left.

“I want every stone looked under to see where we can get the money,” he said, adding: “The economy is reviving. We are going to have to be creative.”