PORTSMOUTH — Portsmouth City Council failed to pass legislation Monday evening which would have appropriated $265,000 from the city’s General Fund for the purchase of an armored vehicle.
Despite having a majority of the votes, 3-1 in favor, the missing fourth vote prevented the passing of the measure. Such was the case earlier this year when a 3-2 vote ended an attempt to decriminalize marijuana possession.
That sum would’ve been used for a Lenco Medcat, a large vehicle capable of seating 15 with on-spot medical treatment capabilities, by the city’s recently formed SWAT Unit and Police and Fire Departments.
These groups advocated for the need both through a written letter and attendance of Council sessions, detailing instances of active shooters and drug house situations.
“The worst thing we can do as city leaders is wait until a criterial incident happens which costs a first responder or a citizen their life before we take the necessary actions,” reads the letter from Police Chief Debra Brewer and Fire Chief Bill Rasion, adding that both departments will use it regularly and do maintenance checks.
1st Ward councilperson Sean Dunne, the sole dissenting vote, again questioned about the grant application process, which he feels would alleviate part of the financial burden. Since this vehicle is projected to see action two to three times monthly, he also believes other municipalities should chip-in if they share an interest in its use.
Not wanting to understate the importance of safety for both citizens and police officers, Dunne said the price tag needed to be considered as that money would have directed funds away from other services.
“To really move Portsmouth forward we have to be very innovative in how we fund things,” he said. “I just don’t think asking us to burden all the $265,000 is being very innovative.”
“To have to pay $265,000 by themselves with a dismissal of the notion that we would share this with other entities I think is unfair to the taxpayers of Portsmouth,” he added, seeing this also as an action of militarization.
Vehicles of this caliber are not just found in major cities like Columbus, said Portsmouth PD Officer Nick Shepherd during the Dec. 14 meeting, as Chillicothe PD employs one in its city’s population of over 21,000 residents.
Sheppard responded to Dunne’s and Council members’ questions, by saying grants were hard to come by due to the coronavirus and that the SWAT unit, formed in September 2019, had not come for assistance for past purchases. A projected total of $70,000 to $80,000, the unit has either relied on out-of-pocket expenses or donations to obtain uniforms, protective shields, training and other items.
What he encouraged was a quick passing of the ordinance, as it would take approximately eight months for the grant money to go through and the vehicle to arrive. Shepherd argued that grants used for the dog park and skate park were not exact similarities to his request, those projects years in the making. That timeline is not one believed to be sufficient in the department’s mission of protecting civilians, he felt.
“Delaying the build of a dog park or a skateboard park is not going to cost somebody their life,” he said. “It’s not going to keep officers from being able to respond to an active shooter situation or evacuate people.”
Regardless of its price tag or labeling as a military vehicle, Mayor Kevin Johnson could not see a justification for not going forward with the request. It was ultimately a matter of safety above all else in his eyes.
“If this is called upon one time, the decision we make on December the 14th of 2020 could be a decision that changes the whole course of a situation,” he said, his support in-part due to his wife and children being in schools, which have been targets of mass shootings in the past.
5th Ward councilperson Edwin Martell’s questions centered around infrastructure upgrades, citing crumbling buildings and pothole-laden roads, and the possibility of granting this money to local hospitals.
“If we’re willing to spend this kind of money on a vehicle like this then we should be more than willing to invest more into fixing our city,” he said, who gave his supporting vote after a noticeable pause.
That position received support from commenters on the city government’s Facebook page, one calling the status of Cole Blvd “embarrassing.”
“Why can’t we fix the streets in our city? They are in terrible condition!” asked a separate poster.
As one of the more expensive items in recent Council sessions, City Auditor Trent Williams did clarify again that the city’s General Fund could cover that cost.
“We have the money and that’s your responsibility as to how allocate it,” he said responding to Johnson, later adding Portsmouth reached a record-high, month-ending balance with over $9 million in the General Fund. This is partially due to the CARES Act funding, he said, so that balance will not remain that high in coming months.
One option for Council Williams said is to pay this amount over the course of the next five to seven years, this being a good time to pursue such a decision due to historically low interest rates. This option, assuming a 2% rate over seven years, would add about $750 total according to 2nd Ward Councilperson Charlotte Gordon’s calculations.
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.
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