SALISBURY — The Salisbury Police Department (SPD) received permission this week to apply for a federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant that could yield a total of $455,046 to the city to pay for three new officers.
If awarded and accepted, the grant would require a 25-percent match from Salisbury, an expensive prospect that made a few City Council members uneasy.
“We’re asking to hire three officers after much consultation with finance,” SPD Chief Barbara Duncan told the council Monday. “This is what the city can afford. Most of that is coming, from my understanding, from collection of delinquent property taxes.”
The COPS grant would provide 75 percent of the funding for the three officers’ salaries and benefits for three years. The cost to the city during that period would be $257,720. The terms of the COPS grant require that the officers hired be retained by the city for at least one more year after the grant has been paid. The cost to the city for that fourth year would be $513,583.
The three officers are, according to Duncan, critical.
“We would be using those three individuals to further our community policing initiatives,” she told the council.
Councilwoman Terry Cohen took the same view and pointed out that the number the city has discussed for a full SPD would be about 120 officers with the agency currently only having around 90.
“We have astronomically high calls per officer in this town,” said Cohen. “I mean it just blows away any other comparable town in terms of demand.”
Because of things like its Safe Streets program and a continued police crackdown, Salisbury’s crime rate has seen some measurable improvements, Cohen continued. However, she felt that sometimes it does just boil down to the number of bodies on the streets and that if the SPD doesn’t have enough officers then the city runs the risk of higher crime rates.
“We’ve had some creeping up in some of the areas of our crime rate. We’ve got to get that number down. And it is a significant issue for development, growth and business in this town to make it a safe place,” Cohen said. “It’s one of the few things that I think is truly … an investment that gets a return.”
Many on the council agreed that SPD could use more officers. However, Councilwoman Laura Mitchell had some qualms about looking to the collection of delinquent property taxes as a steady source of revenue that could pay for the city’s end of the grant. She highlighted that the taxes have already been budgeted in both this and the next fiscal year. Additionally, the actual collection of that money is currently under the projected revenue.
“So essentially the money is already spent and it looks to me like we’re trying to spend it twice,” said Mitchell.
Council President Jake Day acknowledged the point but stated that he only felt the city administration was alluding to an area where funding could possibly be drawn. If the city wins and accepts the COPS grant, revenue could potentially come from any source. This concerned Councilwoman Shanie Shields, who wondered if the grant might result in a tax hike and if so if all of that money would be going directly to the SPD.
“If we increase the taxes, I do think that some of the public or even some of the employees of our city don’t want to see it go to one department,” she said. “That causes problems; that causes morale problems. So we have to be careful about that. If citizens wanted it all to go to police what are you saying about the other employees of your city? That they don’t matter?”
It was Shields’ opinion that directing funding to SPD for the new officers would slight other city departments who work just as hard.
“You have to be fair across the board. Whether you like it or not you have to be fair,” she said.
With the crime rates, Shields said that she doesn’t believe that Salisbury suffers from unusual activity. Instead, she chalked it up to “the times that we are living in across the country.”
“The city of Salisbury is not abnormal in having these problems. But we cannot shoot down the morale of the rest of our employees,” said Shields. “If we find the money, we are also going to have to find the money to take care of the rest of our departments and that’s reality.”
Cohen reiterated that Salisbury officers receive far more calls for service than is typical for a municipality of its size.
“This isn’t about choosing one department over another when we’re talking about personnel … but I don’t know about any other department that needs another 30 people to meet the demand on it,” she said. “Our officers are handling an outrageous number of calls every single day.”
The council voted unanimously to give Duncan permission to at least apply for the COPS grant with the understanding that even if it should be awarded Salisbury might have to pass on it this year depending on how the budget shapes up in June.