For over two hours on May 17, the Town Council listened to comments from 44 people during a budget hearing, all calling for the Town to fully fund a Community Responders (CRESS) program and other recommendations of the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG), and for the $2.4 million estimated cost to be reallocated from the Amherst Police Department budget. (See related Indy article here.)
At the Finance Committee (FinCom) meeting the next day, Councilor Dorothy Pam expressed a need to act.
“If we do not find a way to deliver something meaningful, we will have made our government seem like a farce that has no relationship to the people,” Pam said. “I don’t think we have the luxury of saying, ‘well we’ve already made the budget, it’s hard, we can’t do it.’ We have to find a way.”
According to the CSWG’s report, the CRESS program is to be “a civilian, unarmed alternative to the Amherst Police Department, providing community safety services in situations that don’t involve violence or serious crime.”
When the police department’s budget came up for review by the FinCom on May 13, Chair Andy Steinberg attempted to put guardrails around the discussion. “This is not about the CSWG proposal or the $130,000 being proposed in social services,” Steinberg told the committee, referring to the funding allocated to the program by Town Manager Paul Bockelman in his proposed fiscal year 2022 (FY22) budget. “This is about the police department budget as it has been specified by the Town Manager.”
This didn’t appear to sit well with Councilor Pat DeAngelis. Referring to the recommendations of the CSWG, including the creation of the CRESS program, DeAngelis said there may well be an impact on the police and communications center budgets. “I’m uncomfortable with not being allowed to ask questions about this,” she said.
Councilor Cathy Schoen had sent questions to the Finance Director in advance related to the CRESS program and the possible impact on police call volume, as well as the need for additional training. Steinberg and Council President Lynn Griesemer wanted to wait to address those during an evening FinCom meeting scheduled for May 27, after the Town Council hears the report from the CSWG.
The police budget proposed in Bockelman’s FY22 budget is $5,179,369. 94% of the budget is for personnel, which includes salaries, overtime, and education incentives for the department’s 48 staff, down from 50 in FY21. Bockelman has proposed shifting $130,000 from the police budget to help start the CRESS program, which amounts to less than 8% of the estimated costs of the program as advocated by the CSWG. The CSWG is recommending a phased reduction in the number of sworn police officers — to 43 this July, and to 25 by 2025 — and reallocating funding from the police budget to fund the CRESS program as well as the committee’s other recommendations.
Schoen and Councilor Dorothy Pam asked about overtime and whether Chief Scott Livingston expected it to increase due to the reduction in staffing. The budget did not detail what percentage of the personnel budget was overtime but Mangano said it accounts for about 10%. Livingston said he was concerned about the fall, expecting it to be busy with all the students returning, and that he plans to move an officer assigned to the District Attorney’s office and one from the Community Outreach Office downtown, back to regular patrol. If additional overtime is required, Livingston said he only fills shifts if the budget allows.
DeAngelis wondered if call volume may increase if Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in the community feel more comfortable calling 911, knowing there would be a CRESS program that could respond instead of police. Resident Russ Vernon-Jones, who is a member of the CSWG, commented that across the country, programs similar to CRESS handle between 20%-35% of calls.
Schoen said she will be seeking more details on May 27 about what would be needed in terms of training and developing policy manuals in order to build up the CRESS program workforce. She also asked whether the Town Manager can move funds between departments after a budget is passed, to which Mangano replied it is allowed, but “almost never happens.” “Departments stick to their budgets,” he said.
As currently proposed, the CRESS program falls under Social Services rather than the police budget.
Whether the FinCom will recommend the Town Council reject the Town Manager’s budget and ask him to come back with revisions, is an open question. Griesemer, on May 18, implied pressure is mounting for action by the Council. “What we heard is an expectation that we stop using lip service and do something that demonstrates our commitment,” she said. “From a financial standpoint, I don’t find it easy.”