Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Charleston mayor’s plan for unified public safety dept. in limbo

Mayor cites growth as need for unification

Posted by Dustin Waters on Wed, Apr 5, 2017 at 10:55 AM

click to enlarge DUSTIN WATERS
  • Dustin Waters
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg’s proposal to establish a Department of Public Safety to oversee the city’s police, fire, and emergency services departments was met with criticism from his fellow city officials Tuesday. Presenting his plan to the city’s Public Safety Committee, Tecklenburg cited Charleston’s rapid growth and increased spending on public safety as the impetus for creating the department.

According to Mayor Tecklenburg, Charleston’s population has grown by an estimated 17,000 over the past four years — putting Charleston in line to be South Carolina’s most populated city. The number of tourists visiting Charleston has also grown by 13 percent over the past four years, according to the mayor, reaching almost 5.5 million visitors last year.

Meanwhile, the number of calls for fire services has increased by 35 percent over that four-year period and police calls have risen by 11 percent. In that same period, the annual budget for the city’s fire department has increased by almost 35 percent, and the police department budget has increased by around 15 percent. The total budget for these two departments sits around $80 million, which is roughly 40 percent of the city’s annual spending. Tecklenburg also stated that employee retention for these departments was also a major dilemma.

“We have this growth. It’s happening. It’s already happened. We need to be able to plan for how we are going to be able to serve our citizens in our city,” said Tecklenburg. “Currently, our chiefs of fire and police, they do a great job, but they are dealing with the day-to-day operations of what happens in their departments. And that’s why I think it’s a good idea to consider a public safety department with an advocate who has a larger view, maybe, of the entire needs of public safety in our city.”

The mayor has already recommended Police Chief Greg Mullen as an ideal candidate to head up the Public Safety Department. While the members of the Public Safety Committee — which includes Council members Kathleen Wilson, Peter Shahid, Marvin Wagner, and James Lewis — applauded Mullen and outgoing Fire Chief Karen Brack for their efforts, committee members were skeptical of the mayor’s plan.

Wagner, an accountant by trade, told the mayor that he couldn’t see how establishing a head of public safety with a full-time assistant would lead to savings for the city. Councilman Lewis questioned whether Chief Mullen would be the ideal candidate for a position that he said would require considerable knowledge of all public safety issues, not just policing. He suggested that if the city did go through with the mayor’s plan, the position of head of public safety should be advertised nationwide and all applicants should be considered.

Councilwoman Wilson asked for detailed budgets for both the police and fire departments to evaluate what cost-cutting measures can be implemented. Ultimately, the committee told the mayor that a study of city departments and the effect that establishing a consolidated public safety department would have on the city is needed before things can move forward.

According to a 2016 study on public safety consolidation conducted by Michigan State University and the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, there are currently around nine consolidated public safety departments in South Carolina. This puts South Carolina second in the nation in terms of consolidated departments, but far behind Michigan, which leads the country with 61 consolidated departments.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Wilson said she has found that consolidation tends to work best in smaller, lower-crime communities that are “more Mayberry than Charleston.” Of the seven cities examined in the MSU study, five had populations under 30,000. The study concluded by saying that while consolidation has led to efficiencies and savings for some communities, the decision to consolidate was made over a long period of time.

In discussing the cities where consolidation was not successful, researchers wrote, “In some cases, this was because the communities did not find the model to be responsive and, therefore, concluded that separate police and fire agencies would better serve their needs. Some agencies also found their growth or evolving needs required more specialization that consolidation could not offer but separate fire and police agencies could ... The deconsolidation communities we studied were also typically larger and more heterogeneous than our consolidation communities, raising questions of whether public safety consolidation can serve needs of large and growing communities.”

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