Residents appeal to council during budget hearing

Mindy Ragan Wood, The Norman Transcript, Okla.
·4 min read

Apr. 28—More than a dozen residents signed up to make requests of the Norman City Council Tuesday as councilors consider the next fiscal year budget.

Staff and councilors recalled the difficulty they have experienced in the past with drawing the public to hearings on the budget, but Tuesday night was a different story.

"We have hearings and practically beg people to come, and no one shows," Mayor Breea Clark said. "It's up to us to listen."

The next budget hearing is May 25. Council is expected to adopt the budget by June 15, the last date by state law to do so.

Police reform and funding

By the end of the current fiscal year, the Norman Police Department's budgeted expenditures will total $22.7 million. Its proposed fiscal year 2022 budget is $23.5 million.

Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, protestors demanded cuts to the NPD's budget and on June 16, the night the council approved the budget, it reallocated $865,000 from the department's proposed budget increase, The Transcript reported.

Tuesday night, residents wanted to continue to see those funds, which were promised for non-police response for mental health and substance abuse emergency calls, held in place. Others wanted to see funding or officer numbers increased.

A resident from Ward 4 wanted to know why the NPD's administration budget increased by $600,000.

"I noticed in the previous fiscal years we had four full time positions, and then suddenly it jumped to seven," he noted. "I'm just curious how our elected leadership justifies that added expense to our taxpayers, and specifically what that rationale is for this $600,000 jump ... why not take that funding and fund a mobile mental health crisis response team?"

A Ward 6 resident named Jennifer had a different perspective, noting that in her experience working with social workers, they rely on a closer relationship with the police.

"I know for a fact many of them work in partnerships with our police, not alone," she said. "I am all for continuing to progress and help our mentally handicapped people, our people who are homeless, absolutely. But the people who are available, any time of day or night within minutes, are police officers."

Some requests regarding police funding were targeted around other related questions, such as the use of civil asset forfeiture funds.

Ward 7 Stephen Holman, a longtime critic of the practice after he sued and won a forfeiture case against the NPD, said he supported exploring discontinuing the use of the funds.

"We can set an example in Norman for not relying on those types of funds," Holman said.

The amount of funds the city will ultimately allocate to the NPD remains undetermined, because the Fraternal Order of Police contract has not been submitted to the city.

Anthony Francisco, the city's financial services director, said it is not unusual for unions to not settle their contracts until "well into the fiscal year."

"The city manager has the authority to move funds around within the individual funds to cover whatever costs might be above what we have budgeted for," Francisco said. "The important thing to understand is that the negotiations process is really separate from the budget process, even though one certainly impacts the other."

Outgoing Ward 3 Alison Petrone asked if the council could pass an ordinance to "get rid of the civil asset forfeiture fund," how long it would take to get the proposed ordinance before the council for consideration.

City Attorney Kathryn Walker said it would not be "complicated" to create an ordinance to state that the council would not appropriate those dollars.

COVID funds

Many who said they supported cutting police funding also asked the council to budget for broadband internet as a utility, and asked that federal funding for COVID relief be spent on citizens and not capital projects.

A resident, whose name was inaudible, said municipal internet was "not a pie-in-the-sky idea, but was affordable and doable." He recommended setting aside $100,000 in the capital fund as seed money to get it started.

Residents also asked why they did not see American Rescue Plan Act funds in the budget set aside for direct-to-residents COVID relief, and asked the council not to spend it on capital projects.

During councilor comments, several noted that the federal government has not yet released guidelines on how ARPA funds can be spent.

Clark said while she supported the idea of broadband, $100,000 would be "a drop in the bucket" without support from something like ARPA funds.

Mindy Wood covers City Hall news and notable court cases for The Transcript. Reach her at mwood@normantranscript.com or 405-416-4420.