Middletown delays vote on grant to hire 2 officers: Why they’re waiting

Concerns about a projected $2.5 million to $3 million shortfall in income tax revenues in 2020 gave some Middletown City Council members pause Tuesday when voting on a $250,000 federal grant to hire two police officers .

After the three-year COPS grant expires, the city would cover 100% of the new officers’ wages and benefits for at least one year, building in new costs that concerned some members. If those officers get laid off, the city repays the grant.

The city had a deadline of Thursday to accept the federal grant, but police Chief David Birk said it received an two-week extension. Council will vote at its Aug. 18 meeting.

Birk said more officers are desperately needed. In 1997, there were 93 sworn officers in Middletown. In 2020, there are 68.

City officials are expecting seven to eight officers, about 10% of the sworn officers in the department, to retire by the end of 2021. The new officers would be used in the city’s community-oriented policing program.

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Letters from former police chief Rodney Muterspaw and local businesswoman Heather Gibson were read into the record urging council to accept the grant.

“My opinion is that never before has there been a time where community policing is needed more than now,” Gibson said. “Not because we do not already have good community relations but because we must keep that up and do more. "

Another resident, Scotty Robertson, said council should “stop talking and do something” about public safety. He said the community “will be watching and see how serious you are,” adding that residents will be “there at election time.”

Vice Mayor Joe Mulligan said discussions about the grant have not been “a council versus police” issue and that federal grants have obligations. He added that “all five people up here believe public safety is a priority.”

Mayor Nicole Condrey said she supported the issue, calling it “a morale booster.”

“We need to put our money where our mouth is,” Condrey said. “Let’s get the free money.”

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Council member Monica Nenni said there too many strings attached to federal grants.

“The COPS grants have been around since the 1990s,” she said. “(The year) 2011 was the last COPS grant we received for $1 million for four cops. History does not give me confidence due to Middletown’s track record.”

Councilwoman Ami Vitori suggested earmarking about $80,000 a year in the next three budgets in case the city has to repay the federal grant. Vitori cited the 24% increase in homicides statewide in Ohio in 2020 in addition to more homeless due to an expected increase in evictions and economic conditions created by COVID-19.

“This is the time we could use more cops,” Vitori said.

City Manager Jim Palenick recommended council accept the grant. He said funding the city’s requirement could happen through savings from the expected retirements of long-tenured, senior officers who are at the top of the pay scale.

Palenick said the city should use the COPS grant as an interest-free loan. He said if the city had to dip into its General Fund reserve, $250,000 was “a relatively small amount, and that’s why the reserve is there.”

In his report, Palenick said Middletown would still below national standards for police staffing even with two more officers.

To meet those standards, the city needs between 1.8 to 2.4 sworn law enforcement officers per 1,000 population. With the two officers from the COPS grant, Middletown would have slightly less-than 1.5 officers per 1,000 population.

Detective Jason Wargo, Middletown police FOP lodge president, said the grant is very important to the officers.

“We’re very busy and we have guys burning out,” Wargo said. “It’s taxing all of us. We don’t want to lose people.”

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