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State College Borough Council Approves 2021 Budget After Debate Over Police, Mental Health Funding

State College Borough Council on Monday night narrowly approved a 2021 budget following a sometimes heated debate over how to fund  new mental health and police oversight initiatives and how many vacant police officer positions should be filled.

Council voted 4-3 to approve the $69 million budget, which includes no tax increase. 

The most contentious point of discussions over the past month, the approved budget will authorize 60 sworn police officers while shifting $400,000 funding for the new Civilian Response Team comprised of mental health professionals and a new Community Oversight Board to unrestricted reserves.

‘This is not a perfect budget. It’s an unbalanced budget and we will have to deal with it, maybe more than once. But it is a functional budget,’ Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said. ‘It will help us through the six and 12 months ahead as we see what happens from COVID, from changes in Washington… and the reality of our lives.’

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said the response team and oversight board are line items in the budget — at $235,000 and $165,000, respectively — funded by reserves for council to spend as it decides.

As originally proposed, the police department’s $11 million budget would have authorized 58 sworn officers while also funding  the Civilian Response Team employing three social and mental health workers who would respond to calls involving mental health, homelessness and civil disputes and provide follow-up information about available services.

State College police were authorized for 62 officers in the 2020 budget, but with departures and positions left unfilled, the department is currently operating with 54 officers. Essentially, the 2021 budget would have filled four officer positions.

A measure introduced by Councilman Peter Marshall and ultimately approved restored two positions, bumping the authorization to 60 and moving the response team and oversight board to reserve funding to be assigned by council at a later date.

Council members who voted yes on the budget — Lafer, Marshall, Janet Engeman and Katherine Yeaple — said it achieved what was wanted and had little difference from the originally proposed budget.

‘The only thing that’s different is two police officers,’ Marshall said.

Those who voted no — Jesse Barlow, Deanna Behring and Evan Myers — were opposed to the change, saying that funding the new initiatives from reserves instead of a more permanent source was reneging on a promise council made in June when it unanimously passed a resolution committing to police reform measures and examining the police department budget for potential reallocation of some funds toward community services. 

Myers said the uncertainty of future COVID-19 impacts means the reserve funds could be stressed further.

‘I understand the need to be flexible. I also understand that if things are not properly funded they will fail, no matter what those things are,’ Myers said. ‘So if [those items] are just assigned to come out of contingency funds, if the money isn’t specifically allocated it may not happen. We’ve effectively defunded those things.’

Added Barlow, ‘I am concerned that the fact that we are dipping into more reserves means that the choices we’re going to have to make the next couple of years which very likely means more cuts or raising taxes — those are very serious things we’ll be seeing in the next few budgets — will be exacerbated.’

Lafer said she was ‘appalled’ by Myers’ remarks that if the new initiatives were funded by reserves, they might not happen, adding that he was ‘feed[ing] into the anger out there and distrust.’ She then asked if he was ‘going to stay home on the night we do the details [of the new initiatives] or are you going to lecture us on how to do them?’

Myers said it was not the first time Lafer had personally attacked him 

‘Yes, I do think that all our feet, mine included, need to be held to the fire to make sure that we keep our commitments,’ he said. ‘That was the basis of my comments and I’m sorry you felt you needed to personally attack me for it.’

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said throughout the budget review and again on Monday night that the fund budget is unbalanced and is not sustainable as a course for future years. Revenues are at $54.5 million for the year, with more than $14 million of the budget funded from reserves.

‘It is a reflection of COVID-19 planning and this is not sustainable in the long run and there will be some tough choices and decisions that will need to be made going forward,’ Fountaine said ‘Given the unknowns that we’re facing, I did not want to recommend a budget that included tax increases and other things so we did rely heavily on those use of reserves.’

The borough will start 2021 with a total fund balance of $44.6 million — including both restricted enterprise funds that are regularly drawn on and replenished and the general fund — and end at about $30 million. Marshall noted however that about $9 million will remain in the general fund, even after dipping into it for 2021.

‘We could use $900,000 of reserve for the next nine years to balance the budget and not be in trouble,’ Marshall said. ‘That is not going to happen.’

Councilwoman Deanna Behring said, however, using reserve funds would send the wrong message about council’s priorities.

‘I see budgets as passed by council as a statement of philosophy, as a strategic document to signal to the public what we stand behind,’ she said. ‘I’m concerned that if we pass the budget as currently before us that relying on reserve funds doesn’t send that message of commitment, that statement of philosophy and that strategic vision from the council.’

The Civilian Response Team is a recommendation a recommendation of the State College/Centre County Task Force on Mental Health Crisis Services, which suggested it could be a countywide initiative. A study committee recently issued its recommendations for a police community oversight board, which council committed to in its June resolution. Both are measures toward policing and mental health services reforms that have come since the March 20, 2019 fatal shooting of Osaze Osagie by borough police.

Marshall and Lafer said that both reports are fairly new and council is still slated to work out the details on the initiatives. Lafer added that her neighbors have told her they do not want fewer police officers.

‘Our police work hard and they protect us,’ Lafer said. ‘And if problems exist, which clearly some do, then we fix them. We don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater… Because a group of people run around and say we need to fix things and this is how I want to fix them doesn’t necessarily make it the best way.’

Myers said that council has heard not only from the 3/20 Coalition, the advocacy group formed following Osagie’s death, but also from others in community and that council had committed to addressing their concerns. 

‘Council was presented with testimony over and over again during the last year from people who do not just feel discrimination from police and other agencies but also gave examples. That’s the reality. We ignore such voices at our peril,’ Myers said. ‘Certainly our police force is a positive example for many college towns how to operate. I don’t dispute that… At the same time we need to hear the voices of those we represent, both from the standpoint of discrimination and the standpoint of mental health. We must restore trust.’

The 3/20 Coalition proposed that $2 million from the police budget be reallocated to social services and members said funding for the oversight board and response team should be taken directly from the police budget.

‘We’re calling for the funds to come directly from the police budget because these items, the Community Oversight Board and the mental health professionals to respond to 302s (mental health warrants) are a direct result of the community’s lack of trust in the police,’ Melanie Morrison, coalition secretary, said during the public comment period.

The often tense public comment period had mixed views with some speakers favoring fully funding the police department and others supporting a shift of funds toward social services. It also saw back-and-forth about crime statistics, personal attacks and remarks by some that others said were attempts at ‘defaming’ Osagie.

When one speaker criticized Filippelli for cutting him off, Lafer broke in telling the speaker, ‘Shut up,’ before Filippelli told her to ‘Hold off.’

Borough resident and former state Senate candidate Ezra Nanes ended the public comment on a calmer note, saying that the borough could stand behind police by helping to build trust within the community.

‘If you fund programs that mean a great deal to parts of this community out of reserves that aren’t guaranteed secured funding you’re sending a message that they’re not permanent that they don’t really belong in the core of the budget,’ Nanes said.

‘I value the police. We need a healthy police force, but we need a police force that is trusted by all members of this community and that is not the case at this moment. And we can’t move on from that. We have to recognize it. If we pretend that’s not the case we are missing something that will affect the future of this community.’