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Despite warnings of consequences Geneva City Council cuts two probationary police officer positions

The Geneva City Council held its final meeting on the proposed 2021 Budget Wednesday meeting via Zoom due to COVID-19 concerns.

Mayor Steve Valentino opened the meeting with the expectation that the Council had an agreement on the General Fund Budget. Valentino was prepared to accept a motion to approve the resolution to adopt the General Fund budget at the levels the Council had previously agreed to on Monday, October 26, 2020. However, Councilor John Pruett (Ward 6) was not prepared to move forward with voting on the General Fund Budget.

Pruett was concerned that the $288,291 the Council had cut from the proposed 2021 Budget was not a sufficient reduction. Pruett made a motion to eliminate two probationary police officer positions from the Geneva Police Department. This set off a lengthy and at times testy debate amongst the Council.

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When he made the motion, Pruett indicated that he thought roughly 50% of the City’s budget was spent on debt service and human resources costs. While Pruett did not like the idea of cutting staff positions, he felt that eliminating these two positions was the only way to achieve enough budgetary cuts to make a worthwhile reduction in the anticipated property tax rate increase. Pruett also pointed out that at the Council’s urging, City Staff went to the various employee unions asking them to forgo raises to assist with the budget shortfall and the unions would not accept forgoing raises.

City staff indicated that eliminating the positions would cut approximately $160,000 in expenditures. However, Police Chief Michael Passalacqua expressed concerns regarding the proposal. Passalacqua stated that the Department is already understaffed. He further stated that if the Department lost these two positions, the Department would only have 16 patrol officers to staff 4 shifts 24 hours per day 365 days a year. Passalacqua also stated that the Department would likely be unable to staff the afternoon shift with an adequate number of patrol officers to maintain public or officer safety. He indicated that safety would be a particular issue when officers had to leave the City’s jurisdiction to transport prisoners to County facilities. The Chief was also concerned that officer training would suffer because the Department would not have the extra manpower necessary to take officers off their normal shifts for training. Passalacqua also indicated that the elimination of these positions would reduce the Department’s ability to participate in community events or community outreach activities. Finally, Passalacqua indicated that if the positions were cut, he anticipates a significant increase in overtime expenses which runs the dangers of burning out officers, and puts the City one injury or illness away from not being able to adequately staff multiple shifts.

Responding to a request from Councilor Tom Burrall (Ward 1), Assistant City Manager Adam Blowers indicated that the City had budgeted $150,000 for police overtime in 2020 and had as of October 28, 2020, spent $146,000 of that budgeted overtime. It was pointed out that the City was within $4,000 of its budgeted overtime amount with two months in the year remaining despite the City not having its usual summer festivals and events due to COVID-19.

Councilor Jan Regan (Ward 3) questioned whether overtime was really an issue given that the City had managed to get through the year without the probationary officers. However, Chief Passalacqua clarified that one of the probationary officers had been on independent patrol duties for slightly over a month.

City Manager Sage Gerling was so concerned about the staff cut proposal that she asked the Council to consider tabling the issue to allow her time to see if there were other areas where she could find enough funds to cut to satisfy the Council’s desire for a smaller budget. However, no one on the Council wanted to table the issue.

Councilor William Pealer (Ward 2), who had to join the meeting late, indicated that he did not support cutting any police officer positions. Pealer was confused at why the council was discussing the issue because he thought this proposal had already been rejected several times. Valentino indicated that Pruett brought the motion for reconsideration as a member of the prevailing group of Councilors who had previously voted against cutting police officer positions. Pealer asked Pruett why he had changed his mind. Pruett indicated that he did not want to restate all of his reasoning and recommended that Pealer go back and watch the YouTube video of his presentation. As the discussion continued, Pealer did go back and watch the video and when he came back he thanked Pruett for not thinking enough of him to catch him up on the proceedings.  In response to Pruett’s statement that he would consider any better options presented by other Councilors, Pealer stated that the better option was to listen to the City’s expert, the Chief of Police. Pealer also stated that the previous motion to eliminated police positions was defeated for good reasons and Pruett’s motion should be defeated for the same reasons.

Councilor Anthony Noone (At-Large, Frank Gaglianese (At-Large), and Valentino all echoed Pealer’s concern that the Council had previously debated this proposal and rejected it. Even Laura Salamendra (Ward 5), who supported the motion, was concerned that the Council was spending a lot of time debating the issue and called for a vote, but a majority of the Councill was not ready to vote yet.

Gaglianese noted that Passalacqua had previously stated that the department was understaffed even with the two officers Pruett’s motion sought to eliminate. Gaglianese believed the proposal was a “disservice” to community safety.

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Valentino was disappointed that Pruett brought this motion so late and felt it should have been raised on the 26th. Valentino also questioned the accuracy of the data Pruett used to support his motion and stated that he would want the data verified before making any decision based on it. Pruett took offense at his data being questioned. Valentino also cautioned the Council that making drastic cuts to achieve short-term savings could result in future double or even triple digit tax increases. Valentino felt that the better approach would be to look towards increasing revenue.

Burrall asked Chief Passalacqua to explain why he indicated he would only have 16 patrol officers when the budget indicated the Department had 24 police officers. Passalacqua clarified that the Geneva Police Department is a little unique in that the School Resource Officer (SRO), the Civil Officer, and the Department’s Detectives are all classified as civil service police officers.

Councilor Ken Camera stated that he thought Management will just have to make the schedule adjustments necessary to make the staff cuts work. Camera displayed what appeared to be a complete lack of understanding of Civil Service rules or even position qualifications when he suggested that the officers who would be laid off could simply be slid over into the vacant Code Enforcement Officer position. Camera also felt that the Chief would just have to make the scheduling changes necessary to ensure that officers do not burn out. Camera acknowledged that these cuts could have an impact on safety,

In what appeared to be another complete misunderstanding of the Civil Service process or the realities of working in a law enforcement agency, Camera also suggested that the City should reduce work being done by staff on other projects and shift those staff to assist the Police Department with its administrative functions.

Camera also indicated that Geneva could rely on the County to pick up the slack in patrol services. He even went as far as to say that perhaps the County was already providing patrol officer services because there were deputies who lived in the City and parked their cars at their homes. Valentino reminded the Council that Ontario County Sheriff Kevin Henderson had already indicated that the County would not be in a position to fill Geneva’s policing service holes if cuts in services were made.

Camera also argued, that despite the money the City has already spent in training the current two probationary police officers, the City would be better off to let them go and hire new recruits later because these officers were trained pre-police reform. He felt the City would be better off to have recruits trained after the academy made adjustments to its training based on ongoing police reform efforts.

Following Camera’s arguments, Gerling and the City’s Human Resources Director clarified that Civil Service rules would generally prohibit sliding laid-off officers over into the Code Enforcement Officer vacancy. They stated that neither were on the existing list of candidates and that even if the position is opened for public applications because a list was not available, the individuals would still need to meet the minimum qualifications for a Code Enforcement Officer to be eligible.

Salamendra felt that the Police Department could address the staffing issues by assigning Detectives, Sergeants, Lieutenants, and even the SRO to respond to calls when needed. Valentino did not believe this could be done because these individuals had other duties.

When the Council finally voted, the Council voted 5-4 to eliminate the two probationary police officer positions. Councilors Camera, Regan, Pruett, Salamendra, and Burrall voted to eliminate the probationary officers. Valentino, Pealer, Gaglianese, and Noone voted to keep the positions.

Following the vote, the conversation deteriorated between Councilors as they spoke over one another in frustration at the events taking place. Once things died down Gerling and Blowers indicated that they needed to adjust some numbers in the original resolutions to reflect the budgetary savings from the elimination of the probationary officer positions. During this delay, Pealer stated ”you know who is not pausing – public safety – it is still going” referring to the fact that he heard two sirens going by his house. Pruett retorted “that they have a full complement right now though.”

Once Gerling and Blowers updated the General Fund Budget resolution and despite the public having no opportunity to comment on the elimination of the police officer positions, the Council voted to approve the identical 5-4 vote that had approved eliminating the two police officer positions.

The Council next considered resolutions to adopt the 2021 tax levy, approve the workers’ compensation expense for 2021, and to override the State Property Tax Cap. After the budget cuts, the property tax levy will tax residents at a rate of $16.21 per $1,000 in assessed value. All three of these resolutions were passed.

In opening the discussion on the Water & Sewer Fund budgets Valentino clarified that his motion on the 26th was to leave the water and sewer maintenance expenses in the budget, not delete them. Valentino made this clarification because there had apparently been some reports that he had moved to delete the expenses.

On Monday, October 26, 2020, Regan had moved to table the discussion on the Water and Sewer Funds so that Blowers could present the Council with information regarding whether the City could charge different users different rates. Although it appeared that Councilors had been provided this information, Blowers’ findings were not explained to the public at Wednesday’s meeting. Rather after a brief explanation regarding the maintenance priority list provided by Blowers and the Department of Public Works, the Council approved leaving the maintenance expenses in both budgets and eventually approved both budgets. This vote resulted in residents seeing a 4% increase in water rates and a 2.5% increase in sewer rates. Blowers indicated to the Council that these rate increases could be rolled back at any time if the financial situation warranted.

The discussion between Councilors remained testy and unprofessional throughout the night. During the vote to adopt the tax levy, Noone asked if the Council’s “slick maneuvers” would reduce the levy. Both Pruett and Regan asked for the “cynical comments” to stop. At one point during the vote on the Water Fund Budget, Burrall asked for clarification on what was being voted on after Valentino had already announced what the motion was. During his time to vote on the Water Fund, Camera stated that he did not appreciate the “snark” on requesting clarification on what motions were being voted on. Valentino responded that he would not have to repeat things if the Council would pay attention to the agenda and keep up with what was going on. As the Council moved to the discussion on the Sewer Fund, when Valentino and Gerling were discussing what should be brought forward by staff, Salamendra interjected to Valentino “pay attention”.

During the sewer fund debate Camera went off-topic, discussing how the City needed to grow out of its problems, how the City needed to fast track zoning and development, and how the City needed to adjust how it funds fire services. Camera went as far as to say that the City needed to be aggressive in planning and development activities rather than moving along at a regular speed limit as it currently was. Pealer asked if the Council was still talking about the Sewer Budget resolution, to which Valentino responded that he thought so. Camera said, “no we are talking about the burden on our taxpayers” to which Valentino responded, “I would love to have that discussion.”

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After all of the motions were approved, Camera again stated that the Council didn’t need the “snark” about repeating things because repetition helped residents understand the issues better. Salamendra stated that it was poor leadership for the Mayor to demean the Council. Pealer responded that there had been laughing, smirking, and smiling all while the Council was slinging the scythe to end peoples’ careers but putting back into the budget money for spaying and neutering cats.

Pealer concluded by trying to offer a motion to amend the General Fund Budget to reduce the Council’s salary to zero. However, Valentino cut Pealer off waving his hand and stating that it was too late for that and it was time for the meeting to be done. Valentino closed the meeting, and the video feed was cut despite no appearance of a vote to adjourn and the fact that Councilors were continuing to try and respond to Pealer’s motion proposal.