Jun. 2—Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct cost of Eugene, Oregon's "CAHOOTS" program, which costs just over $2 million annually, not $1 million.
The Norman City Council discussed Tuesday night cutting the Norman Police Department's proposed budget by an additional $500,000 to help fund a mobile crisis pilot program.
The council held its last study session on the fiscal year ending 2022 budget before it is expected to adopt the budget next Tuesday.
As previously reported by The Transcript, the council set aside $630,000 in the fiscal year 2021 budget for community programs.
During meetings that followed, council considered funding a pilot program similar to one in Eugene, Oregon that diverts calls for mental health, addiction and non-violent complaints to a mobile crisis unit. The cost of Eugene's program is just over $2 million annually, funded by a number of local sources that include the city and the police department.
Ward 1 Brandi Studley asked why the NPD's budget increased by $527,000 for three additional administrative positions in the fiscal year 2022 budget, and suggested cutting the excess to fund the program.
NPD Chief Kevin Foster said it was not an increase in staff, but the result of cutting equal funds from other departments to pay for the positions.
"Well, then I would still like to propose that we have $500,000 taken from the police budget this year, because it's still our number one budgeted item in our entire city's budget and we really have our community that is reaching out for these other services. I think we owe it to them," Studley said.
She further objected to City Manager Darrel Pyle's working proposal to use specially-trained firefighters as a mobile crisis unit. As an existing resource, firefighters would be available 24/7, while a program run by local nonprofit organizations, which the city surveyed, does not have enough staff.
Studley accused Pyle — "or your staff" — of not doing a thorough search for available partners who are ready to implement the pilot program. She said at least three potential partners had contacted her, ready to pitch their own program to the city.
Pyle said city staff "beat the bushes" in a search for potential partners through Mayor Breea Clark's task force last year. Several meetings were held with local organizations, including mental health providers who were surveyed about the community's needs and queried for their potential to staff a program.
"The answer was, 'We don't have enough people to fit the mission,'" he said. "'We do not have access to enough bodies that are clinically trained in Norman or the metro area.'"
Ward 7 Stephen Holman and Ward 4 Lee Hall were concerned that firefighters would not equal the training of a psychologist for mental health calls, they said.
Studley commented that a bill that would provide federal funds for mobile crisis unit programs is being considered in Congress.
No other councilors spoke in favor of Studley's suggested amendment to cut the NPD's proposed budget for the program.
The council also discussed Ward 6 Elizabeth Foreman's suggested amendment to set aside $1 million for a participatory budget program. The funds would be divided up by ward and through a series of meetings, the public would nominate projects specific to each ward.
It was not clear if the amount would be divided equally among the wards or if projects based on other criteria would set a cap for how much could be spent. Hall noted a program that started in New York City began in a single ward.
Clark suggested the amount be cut in half and noted her concern that no process for the program was yet established.
Anthony Francisco, the city's financial services director, noted the $630,000 for a mobile crisis unit and $1 million for a participatory budget program would "spend down the general fund" above the mandated minimum, but down to a "dangerously low level."
Ward 5 Michael Nash proposed an amendment to pay $6,000 for NPD's requested data software and $18,000 for riot gear and training. Nash said if officers felt safer, the need to escalate force might be lessened.
Studley suggested the University of Oklahoma Police Department and Cleveland County Sheriff's Office respond in the event riot gear was necessary.
Foster replied that OUPD did not have riot gear "for our department" and said he was "not sure" CCSO did either.
Nash said Foster showed him the condition of the department's riot gear, which had been purchased in the 1980s.
Holman was not in favor of riot gear and said, along with Studley, that $6,000 for data software was an acceptable suggestion.
Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at email@example.com or 405-416-4420.