MERIDEN — Public reaction is split over the City Council’s vote this week to transfer $200,000 in this year’s budget to reinstate community policing.
While many residents have urged the council to bring back the city’s Neighborhood Initiative Unit after it was axed in September due to budget cuts, residents who spearheaded last summer’s budget referendum see the council’s reversal as a “slap in the face.”
In addition to giving police $200,000 to bring back five NI officers, the council voted last month to transfer $60,000 to police to restore two school resource officer positions, which were also cut as a result of the referendum. The $260,000 in midyear transfers exceeds the $250,000 cut the council made to police last year following the referendum. Councilors were forced to revisit the budget after 5,999 voters rejected the council’s original $198 million spending plan because they felt the budget’s 4.5 percent tax increase was too high.
“Over the summer we told the council we wanted the budget cut,” said resident Michael Carabetta, who led a petition effort to force the referendum. “They placated us for a while and now they went and gave more money to the PD than they originally cut.”
“Councilors have gone back on their promise to the hardworking taxpayers by not only reversing their original decision to cut the department by 250K but have now given back 260K which is 10K more than they had originally cut,” resident Joe Vollano wrote in a letter to the editor this week.
Vollano and Carabetta both believe councilors up for reelection pandered to residents and neighborhood associations who supported the NI Unit.
The resolution to reinstate NI officers narrowly passed 6-5 Monday following a 45-minute council discussion.
Deputy Majority Leader Cathy Battista, who co-sponsored the resolution, said she didn’t take the referendum into consideration in supporting the resolution, which she said was “in the best interest of the city.”
Battista and other councilors who voted in favor of restoring community police pointed to the value community policing has in reducing crime and building relationships with the community. Battista felt continuing without community policing would hurt Meriden’s image and efforts to attract more development.
“Here we are on the verge of looking like a decent city, and then we're going to pull that out?” Battista said.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said he sees the NI Unit as a necessity, especially in downtown.
“Is $200,000 of reallocated funds ideal? No, it’s not ideal. We want to be as fiscally responsible as possible when making decisions, but these are all decisions we have to weigh against the betterment of our city,” Scarpati said.
Councilors who supported the plan said the $200,000 will be taken from unspent funds in this year’s budget and will not affect this year’s mill rate.
Other councilors who voted in favor of the resolution couldn’t be reached Thursday.
Democrat Bruce Fontanella, who voted against restoring the officers, said while city staff projects Meriden will finish the fiscal year 2018-19 with a surplus, spending the $200,000 on NI officers will lessen the year-end surplus, money that could be used to lower taxes next year.
The $200,000 will allow Police Chief Jeffry Cossette to reassign five officers to the NI Unit.
Many councilors pointed out that it was Cossette’s decision to cut NI and SRO positions after the council reduced his budget by $250,000, leading some councilors to believe those positions were Cossette’s lowest priority. Democrat Brian Daniels, who voted against the resolution, maintained that Cossette could reinstate community policing “tomorrow” even without the $200,000 if he reprioritized his spending.
Councilors who rejected the resolution also said they didn’t feel comfortable undoing cuts to police given that “nothing has changed” since the council voted to cut the funding. Prior to the council’s 11-1 vote to approve its revised budget that cut police by $250,000, Cossette publicly informed councilors that he would cut NI and SRO positions if the budget passed, councilors said.
“Nothing has changed since that vote except somebody’s mind,” Fontanella said.
Battista said she’s entitled to change her mind “if I feel it’s in the best interest of the city.”
Republican Dan Brunet said at the meeting he feels some councilors have been “emotionally manipulated” by Cossette’s decision to cut the NI and SRO positions, which Brunet says Cossette cut to “get the most dramatic effect.”
Cossette has previously said he had “no choice” but to cut the NI Unit and SRO positions. Scarpati cut an additional $178,000 from the police budget, meaning Cossette’s budget was cut by $423,000 in total following the referendum.
Those who voted in opposition also pointed to the fact that arrest data indicates crime in the city is down 21 percent since 2014 and there have been no spikes in crime since the NI Unit was eliminated four months ago, though Cossette has said four months is not a large enough sample size.
But other councilors argued that NI officers, who work proactively in neighborhoods to prevent issues before they occur, have helped the crime drop and they didn’t want to undo that progress by not approving money for NI officers.
“The data tells us that crime is down...but I think what’s being missed is, ‘Why is it down?’” said Michael Cardona, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee. “...The professionals that study crime trends are telling us that a major factor that played a role in that decreased crime rate is the NI Unit.”
Fontanella said the council should put off discussions about reinstating the NI officers until the next fiscal year when the city would have a better gauge on whether the absence of the NI Unit has any effect on crime.
Council Majority Leader David Lowell said while he wouldn’t have been comfortable restoring all 11 NI positions cut by Cossette, he’s comfortable restoring some of them using existing funds. Lowell said he would like to see police move toward a “hybrid model” of community policing in which patrol officers perform proactive community policing duties when not responding to calls.
Some have argued that NI officers are necessary because patrol officers do not have enough time during their shifts to perform proactive policing because they are busy responding to calls.
City Manager Tim Coon, who worked in law enforcement for 20 years before becoming city manager, has said he plans to conduct an analysis of police operations, including an analysis of how much time patrol officers spend per shift responding to calls, to help determine the future of the NI Unit.
Coon supported the resolution because it was the only way for the time being to “guarantee” the department could provide community policing, which Coon said has proven to be very effective in almost all communities.