What city would turn down $6 million in federal grant money that would enable it to hire up to 16 additional police officers for the next three to six years?
The City of Everett could; and not without reason.
And a Sept. 8 deadline doesn’t allow a lot of time for city officials to hash over the pros and cons.
In fact, the Everett City Council would, during a workshop session Wednesday evening, have to make the call whether to accept or pass on the offer, without calling a special meeting before next week, as reported Tuesday by The Herald’s Ben Watanabe. The issue has been added to Wednesday night’s agenda.
The grant, offered by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, is a significant prize, a total of up to $6.05 million to hire 16 additional officers, with financial support for at least three years, renewable for an additional three years.
Mayor Cassie Franklin explained in a phone interview Monday that earlier in the year she had gone to her department heads with instructions to look for all potential opportunities for grant funding. With available revenue falling short as the city confronts a structural budget deficit — even before the economic hit of the pandemic — Everett, like other local governments, has doubled its efforts to find what money might be available outside of city tax revenues.
Everett Police Chief Dan Templeman learned about the COPS grant, and with some Washington, D.C., lobbying by Franklin earlier this year, Everett was encouraged to apply for and was awarded the $6 million grant in June, one of nearly 600 other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. provided almost $394 million in grants.
In fact, Everett was one of the top beneficiaries of the grant program for 2020, receiving the ninth highest award behind much larger cities, including New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Houston. Eleven other police agencies in Washington state also received grants, but most were for $125,000 to $250,000. Federal Way was the next highest beneficiary, with a $750,000 grant.
Everett’s application, Franklin said, scored high in recognition of the police department’s community policing efforts, its need for better response times and the types of programs the city sought to fund with the grant, including more neighborhood patrols, an expansion of its bicycle officers to neighborhoods in the city’s south end and traffic response.
“These are the needs we’ve heard from the community for years,” Franklin said.
Yet, some on the city council are wary of what financial commitments the grant program could require of the city. Councilmembers Scott Murphy and Brenda Stonecipher, in a teleconference interview Monday, didn’t dismiss the advantage of additional officers, but said they had not received a full report from the city administration as to the grant’s requirements or what costs the city would be responsible for during the program and after it ends.
In fact, Murphy said, the council’s first notice about the program came only last week.
Franklin and Templeman admit there are costs, specifically for outfitting officers with equipment and vehicles, but the COPS office has waived the 25 percent match typically required of local governments. And, both said, there is flexibility built into the program that limits the strings attached.
The police department wouldn’t look to hire all 16 officers in the first year; more likely, it would start with five or fewer in the first year, and additional in following years. The grant has no hiring requirement to retain eligibility; the city could decline to hire any officers in the program’s first three years, Franklin said, and still be eligible to renew the program for the second three years.
One significant string: The city would have to commit to retaining those officers hired for at least one year after the grant funding ends.
Considering recent calls elsewhere to “defund the police” — as open to misinterpretation as that slogan is — and the city’s financial situation, now could seem to many like a risky time to add officers to the police department. The city, facing those budget constraints, has already reduced its workforce by 100 employees through attrition, retirement incentives, layoffs and furloughs. And in recent years, the city’s police, fire and emergency medical workforce has seen steady increases, as other departments have recently suffered cuts.
This also could be a good time to hire, noting that other police agencies, particularly Seattle’s, are moving to lay off officers, which would provide Everett with a deep hiring pool of diverse and experienced candidates. As well, adding officers can assure that the police department can make the time necessary for officers to complete the progressive training programs the department has developed for deescalation, anti-bias and other training, Franklin said.
Murphy and Stonecipher, understandably, see reason for caution in the face of uncertainty because of the pandemic’s economic downturn, the city’s nagging structural deficit and the recent news that Boeing’s Everett plant could lose the entire 787 production line to Charleston, South Carolina. Those are considerable headwinds.
Franklin, however, said the council needs to consider a path separate from seeing cuts to city employment and services as the only option. She has for much of her tenure encouraged a consideration of alternatives, including a lift of the city’s levy lid, and a switch from a city fire and EMS department to a regional fire authority.
Importantly, the grant appears to recognize the uncertainty the city faces and allows some flexibility without onerous commitments. Late Tuesday afternoon, Murphy and Stonecipher said additional information from the administration had answered some of their concerns, specifically that the city council ultimately retains authority on what happens with the grant and how it is used.
The council should accept the grant, with the understanding that it will have the final say on how much of it will be used to hire new officers, with an eye toward the city’s outlay. That’s a decision that should be made following its discussions on the current budget being considered, and then each year for the following two to five years of the program. And it’s on the city administration to provide timely information — pro and con — the council needs to make those decisions.