COLUMBIA, SC — The new year at Columbia City Hall is set to begin with a twist on an old and volatile issue: spending more on public safety, including the feasibility of a takeover of the police force by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.
A contingent of City Council is considering ways to funnel more money to police, firefighters and 911 dispatchers even if it’s at the expense of other city functions.
The specter of reopening a debate over Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott controlling the police department comes as a citizens’ search committee this week begins to winnow candidates for the ninth person since 2007 to lead the 400-officer city police force.
Cameron Runyan, council’s new budget chairman, said he wants to use the 2014-15 budget to prompt City Council to convert rhetoric about supporting public safety to action by spending the money necessary to have quality first-responder services.
“Every council member who has run for council the past 10 years has run on a public safety platform,” the first-term councilman said last week. “If public safety is No. 1, then everything else in the city has to take a back seat ... something’s going to go from somewhere else.
“They elected me to be chairman of this committee to plow through these issues,” said Runyan, a financial adviser by profession. “So we’re going to plow.”
He would not say how much more money he’s planning to suggest council shift into public safety. That, Runyan said, would be up to city manager Teresa Wilson to recommend to council. Efforts to reach Wilson on Friday were unsuccessful. She was out of state, a city spokeswoman said.
Runyan plans to propose a freeze on the $124.6 million general fund budget, rather than devising a budget that builds in increases for departments as council usually does. The general fund pays for most city operations except its water and sewer systems.
As council grapples with the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, Runyan also wants the city manager and the finance department to calculate the cost of turning over operation of the police department to Lott.
Lott said in an interview last week that private and business interests recently have suggested to him that he reconsider consolidating departments – a debate that has roiled council and residents for years. Council last voted down a contract with Lott in September 2010.
“I’d be interested only if it’s done the correct way,” Lott said last week, “and the correct way is I’d have to be in charge. That’s the only way to fix it. I’m not asking for it, but I’m open to it.”
Mayor Steve Benjamin, who supports a cost analysis of a merger, said in the waning days of last month’s strong-mayor campaign that he favors expanding ties between the police and sheriff’s departments. He also called for hiring more officers and increasing pay for police and firefighters.
During the referendum campaign, Lott publicly criticized the structure of the police department.
He said he ran an undercover operation in Five Points without telling interim Police Chief Reuben Santiago. Informing the police department would have triggered layers of administrative approval by Santiago’s City Hall bosses and the undercover investigation of The Library bar could have been compromised, Lott said at a news conference.
Benjamin said Friday that a merger ultimately is up to council.
“We have talked about that issue ad nauseam, but I’d be interested in a cost/benefit analysis. It’s worth looking at.”
Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman said he sees no ties between Runyan’s call to revisit the merger issue and Wilson’s long-delayed start to hiring a police chief – a post that has been vacant since April when Chief Randy Scott abruptly resigned.
Benjamin, who sought to hire a search firm to find candidates for the job, said renewed talks about a merger should not chase away good candidates for police chief.
“I think the job will remain attractive to any candidate even during this dialogue,” the mayor said.
Runyan said he will spell out his budget ideas to city staffers this week and will present the plan to his Finance, Audit and Budget Committee Jan. 14.
Mixed reviews so far
A sampling of council members last week found interest in finding a way to increase public safety spending but no consensus on how to do that.
Most members interviewed balked at reopening a debate about a Lott-run police department.
“Now is not the time,” Councilwoman Leona Plaugh said of merging with the sheriff’s department. “We have been down that path. I don’t know how many times we have to do that exercise.
“To me, this train (to hire a chief) is going down the tracks and I am wholeheartedly supporting it,” she said.
But Plaugh said she favors Runyan’s push to spend more next year on public safety, even if it means transferring money from other city services. She said she does not recall Runyan mentioning a “freeze” on other general fund spending. That, too, is something Plaugh said she might support.
Councilman Moe Baddourah, who ran for mayor last year largely on a public safety platform, said council should wait to hear from a new chief on the department’s needs before voting on budget increases.
But Baddourah said he supports more funding for the 911 center, which in 1998 merged dispatching of public safety calls from the city and the county. The center director asked council last fall for more staffing and equipment.
“I’m not going to cut any other general fund services,” said Baddourah, the District 3 councilman. He called Runyan’s freeze proposal “premature.”
Baddourah said he’d be open to a discussion about contracting the police services to Lott. He said he heard talk of a merger during his months-long campaign to unseat Benjamin.
Newman, the former chairman of the budget committee, said he supports finding more money for public safety even if it means taking money from other city functions.
“I don’t know if I could go as far as a freeze on other spending just yet,” Newman said.
He is unmovable on talk of Lott running the police department.
“I’m adamantly opposed to a merger,” said Newman, who represents District 2. “Not interested.”
Tenuous 2010 majority dissolved
Council came closest to turning operation of the police department over to Lott in September 2010. A one-vote majority to sign a management contract with the sheriff fell apart during a crucial council vote, when then-citywide Councilman Daniel Rickenmann withdrew his support.
The slim majority was uneasy even the day before the vote when Benjamin floated a one-year trial agreement that would have given Lott six months to evaluate the department’s needs and six months to carry out improvements while Lott helped the city hire a chief to replace the fired Tandy Carter.
Some on council and in the police department argued the city had studied the issue repeatedly only to fail to follow through. Studies were done in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008. But none of those examined what it would take to merge the two agencies.
“I do not understand why Sheriff Leon Lott needs to come and tell us how to do our jobs,” said now-retired Lt. D.K. Martin during the debate three years ago. “We know how to do our job. We know what we need. We’re spinning our wheels on our end. That’s what the frustration is on our end.”
The debate also split neighborhoods and citizens, sometime along racial lines.
Benjamin and Plaugh at the time supported a department managed by Lott.
Neither Runyan, Baddourah nor Newman were on council at the time.
The new budget committee chairman said he feels so strongly about changing how council manages the budget that he’s prepared to take an unusual step.
“I’m going to do everything I can to make them fiscally responsible,” Runyan said of his budget suggestions to council. “If they aren’t, then, yeah, I may vote against the budget.”
Spending on public safety
Columbia spends large portions of its general fund budget on police and fire services. A city councilman is proposing undisclosed increases for public safety, even it that means cutting other programs.
This year, City Council allotted more than one-quarter of the $124.6 million general fund to the police department and 17 percent to fire services. Here’s a look at council’s spending trends on public safety the past three fiscal years:
Fiscal 2011-12 (July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2012)*
Police: $31,327,331, including $1,130,407 to replace vehicles (or 28 percent of the general fund).
Fire: $21,122,629, including $1,112,602 to replace vehicles (or 19 percent of the fund).
911 center: $2,287,956 (or 2 percent of the fund).
Fiscal 2012-13 (July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2013)**
Police: $32,036,623, including $1,107,320 to replace vehicles (or 28 percent of the fund).
Fire: $18,356,921, including $34,851 to replace vehicles (or 16 percent of the fund).
911 center: $2,347,976 (or 2 percent of the fund)
Fiscal 2013-14 (July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014)***
Police: $33,657,787, including $1,895,731 to replace vehicles (or 27 percent of the fund).
Fire: $21,505,644, including $1,505,150 to replace vehicles (or 17 percent of the fund).
911 center: $2,764,669 (or 2 percent of the fund).
* Actual, audited expenditures
** Actual, unaudited expenditures
*** Budgeted expenditures
SOURCE: Columbia’s budget office
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.