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City votes to eliminate their part of funding for School Resource Officers and the Joint Aviation Unit

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Gainesville City Commission met today to continue discussing the FY21 budget. At the beginning of the meeting, City Manager Lee Feldman corrected the information that had been given at the County Commission meeting on Tuesday, that City playgrounds would open on June 22. He said that is not correct; on June 22, the City’s summer camps will be opening.

Feldman started the budget discussion by stating, “At this point, we are in balance. I am not recommending an increased tax rate, and we are in balance with the Fire Assessment at its current rate. There will be a few slides in here where we can talk about where the Fire Assessment can go in order to achieve the 50% mark, and getting your guidance today on that will allow us to prepare the agenda item for the 18th.” However, they never talked about the Fire Assessment fee. 

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After viewing the budget presentation, the commissioners began discussing their budget priorities. 

Streaming City meetings on Facebook

One of the City Manager’s proposed increments is $42,000 for each commissioner to have a Telephone Town Hall during the year. Commissioner Gail Johnson asked whether the City could continue to hold weekly Telephone Town Halls, but Feldman said his experience is that interest dwindles if you keep having them weekly. Johnson had assumed that City meetings and Telephone Town Halls were still streaming on Facebook (they’re not), and when she found out they weren’t, she said she found it valuable to have meetings on Facebook and asked why the City had stopped doing that.

Feldman said, “The problem is we can’t engage in the dialogue that’s happening with the comments on there, so people are making comments, we don’t know what those comments are, some quite frankly are very vulgar and inappropriate for public forums, so we wanted to be able to continue to engage our neighbors through streaming… and telephonic means.” Johnson said she finds Facebook to be “a lot more accessible.”

Commissioner David Arreola said he was “pleased to hear that there’s no tax increase recommendation. That should be our goal.” 

Hayes-Santos moves to remove funding for the Joint Aviation Unit

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said he was also in favor of streaming meetings on Facebook because it’s easier to find the meetings on Facebook than on the City’s Granicus site. He supported removing the funding for the Joint Aviation Unit (JAU), the helicopter unit that is shared by the Gainesville Police Department (GPD) and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ASO). At a joint City/County meeting on May 29, both GPD Chief Tony Jones and Sheriff Sadie Darnell said the unit is valuable to them, but some city and county commissioners wanted to disband the unit. The City pays about 47% of the costs of the unit, but the city commission believes that the cost allocation is unfair. The funding in question is about $67,000 in operating expenses. Hayes-Santos said, “I still don’t believe that we should have to fund that, and I think we should redirect those dollars to something else.”

Hayes-Santos also wanted to remove funding for “testing cannabis for anything under drug trafficking… We should not be funding those tests… I don’t think it’s a good use of our funding resources to be testing small amounts of cannabis.” 

Mayor Lauren Poe asked about an unfunded increment of $18,782 for the Community Resource Paramedicine Program (CRPP).  “I would like us to significantly increase the resources and the ability of that program to serve more people… We know that it works, it has been one of the most effective things we’ve done in the area of public health and public safety in the last… well, ever.” 

Poe agreed with Hayes-Santos that it is a “fool’s errand” to try to police cannabis at all. “I just want to see our police department focus their energy and resources somewhere else because, at the end of the day, it’s legal in our state, in several different forms.” He supported transferring the operational costs for the JAU to the County but said he wanted to see a “full transition plan.” 

“Defund the police”?

Poe took a few minutes to talk about the “defund the police” movement, “what that actually means versus what it sounds like it means.” He said most people don’t actually want to abolish the police department, but “it’s providing the appropriate service level in response for the appropriate situation.” He said CRPP is a “great example of that,” but GPD gets over 93,000 calls for service in a year, “so we have to have something in place to answer those calls. People aren’t going to stop calling, and we don’t always know what that call is. A noise complaint could end up being a domestic violence call… I’m ready for the hard, deliberative work to look at how we reimagine serving our neighbors and getting the right resources and funding in place under the right part of the organization to best serve our neighbors, but I’m not even close to knowing what that looks like.” 

He supported increasing funding for the CRPP unit so they can be on duty at all times. He said that right now, it’s Monday-Friday, “9-5ish kind of approach, and of course a lot of people that are in mental health crisis don’t have their mental health crises during those times.”

Hayes-Santos made a motion to “redirect dollars from the Joint Aviation Unit and redirect dollars from the funding for testing for cannabis for arrests that are below drug trafficking and that we move those dollars to the Community Resource Paramedic Program for additional GPD mental health units.”

Commissioner Gigi Simmons requested that they also add $4,000 in “Aid to Outside Organizations,” which is money that goes to sponsorships of events and funding for community organizations. The money is an additional increment on top of the current budget for that, but nobody could say what that amount is.

School Resource Officers

Poe brought up the issue of School Resource Officer funding, which Johnson had spoken about at a previous meeting: “We have a tremendous SRO team, recognized last year as the best in the state… my point’s not with that. My point is, highest best use of valuable resources. There is NO evidence that having School Resource Officers, in schools, on duty, prevents shootings. There’s data that shows—and I’m speaking more nationally, not here in the city of Gainesville—there’s more arrests, there’s more negative interactions… I don’t think it helps us accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Johnson responded : “I’m not going to call it ‘defunding,’ but I’m going to call it ‘reallocating resources,’ right now, with our school resource officers. I’m going to say very clearly, right now, that is not what I’m talking about. At all. I see the value in our school resource officers… There are two other conversations. One is that the resources that the school board does have… a $423 million budget, there’s some other discussions that have been had around the way the school board uses their resources. And… what is the best use of those resources, and who are the best stewards of those funds?… This is the conversation that I want to have: it’s about the funding source for the school resource officers… I think it’s $900,000 this year that, I’m going to say this because I believe it’s true, that we are graciously contributing to the school board budget for this.”

Feldman responded that originally, ASO provided all the school resource officers. Then the City picked up the amount the school board gave ASO. The school board’s contribution is roughly $1.2 million of the roughly $2.1 million of costs. The law requiring school safety officers was passed after the Parkland school shooting. “The obligation is on the school board to provide that service.” The statute says “they shall partner with local law enforcement entities” to do that, but there’s no definition of what that partnership is. He said he could tell the school board that the City doesn’t want to contribute to school resource officers, “but I just need to know what happens if they say no.”

“We are so much better stewards of that taxpayer money, at this point in time, than what I’ve seen from the school board,”

Johnson said, “Like we’ve done with our aviation unit, I think it’s as good of a time as any to look over the contractual agreements that we have with our partners, and if we don’t feel like it’s fair or not working in our favor, then I think that it’s fair that we can revisit those conversations… I think the school board should pay 100% for the school resource officers, and then we can redirect those funds into programs that we currently have on the table… for initiatives that the community wants, primarily because—I believe this with all of my heart and my soul—is that we are so much better stewards of that taxpayer money, at this point in time, than what I’ve seen from the school board, from recent decisions that they’ve made, from their 27-page budget, and it’s $423 million they’re responsible for, folks can’t get answers… I am actually not convinced that they don’t have the money to do this. Not at all.”

Commissioner Harvey Ward said, “There is no choice… about whether to have armed… guardians in our kids’ schools. We don’t get to make that decision. The legislature made that decision.” He said they could lobby to change that, “but there’s going to be at least one person who is statutorially required to have a gun in every school. We have the opportunity right now to write the policies and procedures and direct the actions of the person with a gun in public schools in the Gainesville city limits, and that’s because they’re Gainesville police officers… I’m always for saving money… but I don’t want to… lose the opportunity to direct the actions of that officer in every public school in the city of Gainesville to either the Sheriff or to some other security group that we have zero input into…”

“If the school board has a problem finding the funds, or with the responsibility of funding this measure, that’s their problem.”

Commissioner Reina Saco said, “It’s an unfunded mandate… If the school board would not like to be saddled with an extra $900,000 that they have to cover, they should let that be known in Tallahassee. This is an unfunded mandate for the school board, not for the City, and if the school board has a problem finding the funds, or with the responsibility of funding this measure, that’s their problem… I think if the school board does get mad, that’s good, and they can have a conversation with Tallahassee… I do agree that… GPD is not a bad police department, and I would rather have GPD than a deputy in a school, but I would prefer to have NO people with guns in our schools… I don’t think we’ve had any problems here, specifically, but I do think students of color and minority students are over-policed. It’s the reflexive action to just over-police any misbehaving child of color.”

Commissioner David Arreola said he is “increasingly concerned with our board’s tone toward our partners at the school board… if our number one goal… is to assist the school system in raising literacy for black children in their schools… I think that we run the risk of souring a relationship when we have conversations about their budget acumen… we sound like the way that the County treats us, and you see how well that goes…”

Simmons said, “If we want our children to be safe… who better, maybe, than GPD?” She said some of the current school resource officers have been in their positions for many years, and some even attended the schools they’re currently protecting. “Can we go back to the school board and have this conversation with them and say hey, we want to be there… we want GPD presence there, but how can we look at this contract… and come up with a better contract?”

Poe pointed out that it’s not a completely unfunded mandate; the school board gets some funds from the legislature. “We’re basically making up the difference.”

Ward said he’d prefer that conversations be held between management instead of taking “a shot across the bow… if the County or the school board did that to us… I would not appreciate that… we need to build relationships with the other public entities in this community.”

Four motions

The commissioners split the motion into four parts:

1) “Move that we redirect dollars from the Joint Aviation Unit, and move those dollars to the Community Resource Paramedicine Program or additional GPD mental health units, and $4,000 of Aid to outside organizations.”

That passed 5-2, with Ward and Arreola in dissent.

2) “That we redirect funding for testing cannabis for arrests below drug trafficking and move those dollars to the Community Resource Paramedicine Program or additional GPD mental health units, and $4,000 of Aid to outside organizations.”

That passed unanimously.

3) “Have staff enter into negotiations with the school board to transition 100% of the cost of school resource officers to the school board.”

That passed 4-3, with Simmons, Arreola, and Ward in dissent.

4) “Request from staff for a full funding plan for CRP increments.”

That passed unanimously. 

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