BRISTOL, Va. — The city of Bristol, Virginia plans to add four officers to its police force after receiving a four-year, $500,000 federal grant.
On Tuesday, City Council voted 4-1 to accept the COPS hiring program award, which will partially fund four positions. The grant program, through the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services [COPS], partially funds the salaries and benefits for four positions for three years, requires increasing local matching funds then guarantees it will fully fund the four positions in the fourth year.
“This grant is for a 75-25 match for four new officers that would be patrol officers and community policing,” Police Chief John Austin said.
It was those required increases in local monies that sparked a call for caution from one council member. The council just completed a fiscal 2020-21 spending plan that slashed about $2 million in spending, primarily due to lost tax revenues from the COVID-19 shutdown, and required a supplemental appropriation and other actions to keep from laying off several city employees.
“I do have concerns. This is going to be an increase to the city budget in a city declining in population,” Councilman Kevin Wingard said. “Everybody is banking on the casino. If the casino comes, this is not an issue; we’re going to need those officers. If we do not get the casino, this is going to be a major issue down the road.”
In the first year, the federal amount is $189,027 with a local match of $67,081. In year two, the federal amount is $175,611 and the local is $80,497, while the third year amounts are $135,362 from the grant and $120,746 from the city. The local total over the first three years is $268,324.
“The need for these officers is apparent already,” Mayor Bill Hartley said, especially downtown, he added. “If the voters approve the casino in November, I think everyone agrees we’ll need more policing but we’d also have the means to pay for it. I think this [grant] is a good way to pay for it. … It adds an obligation over time, but it gives you time to deal with that and would be easier than adding just one or two officers without this funding in place.”
Vice Mayor Anthony Farnum said, without the grant, it would cost more than $700,000 of “taxpayer money” to hire and fund those positions over the same period.
“I wouldn’t want to turn away this grant money that we could bring into the city to help us,” Farnum said.
Councilman Neal Osborne also expressed support.
“This is a good opportunity, I think, to start ramping up the staffing level at the Police Department in a way that won’t cost us as much money as doing it all at once,” Osborne said.
The vote was to accept the grant, but council must appropriate the additional $67,000 for the budget. That vote is expected at its next regular meeting.
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