Council stands together on 911 funding, approves more officers

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Latest: 10:30 p.m., 2/6/17, Monday

URBANA — The city council decided they will take up 911 funding with the state.

They passed a resolution in favor of raising the 911 surcharge on phone bills.
 
Right now, it’s 87 cents, and state law won’t let the city raise it.
 
Urbana says the 87 cents isn’t enough to pay their share for METCAD.
 
With this resolution passing, they’ve agreed to stand together to see if they can convince the state to change that.
 
They also voted to approve the hiring of two new Urbana police officers.

Update: 3:30 pm, 2/6/17, Monday 

URBANA — The city council is scheduled to vote on hiring more police officers at Monday night’s meeting.

The annual cost for two additional officers is expected to be about $96,000 each for things like salaries, benefits and uniforms.

The council will also discuss amending the budget to include nearly $13,000 in crime mapping software for use by a crime analyst to evaluate data.

The meeting is at 7 pm. 

Original: 10:00 pm, 1/9/17, Monday

URBANA — The mayor has her own plan for paying for more officers, but it isn’t without a touch of irony.

She says, in order to scrape together the cash to make it happen, the city first needs to figure out how to pay for the service which dispatches officers in the first place.

“We could use that money to fund police officers if we didn’t have to subsidize the 911 system so heavily.”

For years, the city of Urbana has struggled to cough up cash to keep Champaign County’s 911 call center open. And, for years, the mayor has been saying state government is to blame. Illinois law mandates the 911 surcharge on your phone bill is 87-cents and the city doesn’t have the power to change it.

“This system that you set up with 87-cents just isn’t working,” says Mayor Laurel Prussing, “and we have to do something that’s sustainable otherwise we’re going to go bankrupt and we won’t be able to pay for anything else we need to fund.”

Prussing says, if the city had the power to boost the surcharge, they could bring in enough revenue to comfortably fund METCAD and pay for more officers. The numbers work, but council members aren’t all sold on the idea of scraping together half a million bucks to do that now.

“I know the mayor feels like the crime is happening now, so we should address it now,” says alderman Aaron Ammons. “I understand the concern, but I don’t think that you make a $500,000 investment in the middle of the year without having an in-depth conversation about that prior to making such a proposal.”

The police chief spoke at the council meeting. He says five more officers would be great, but the hiring process takes awhile.

In 2015, the department had to hire one more person than was budgeted for, just to keep up with needs.

Asking the state to let the city control the 911 surcharge isn’t the only idea the mayor has to raise money. Mayor Prussing says she also wants to boost the city’s hotel-motel tax.

Originally, she suggested an increase of 2%. It would have brought in about $300,000. She’s since dropped it to half of one percent (1/2%), but a local hotel organization says, even that could hurt business.

“Champaign has only increased once in the past, well, longer than the past five years,” says Laura Rittenhouse, president of the C-U Hotel Lodging Association. “For Urbana, it’ll be the third time now.”

The Association says Urbana’s hotel-motel tax rate is already high enough and companies and groups are choosing to stay in Champaign hotels, instead.

The council also talked about a resolution to keep the UI’s Police Training Institute in Urbana. Another police training facility is being built in Decatur and some are worried the UI’s program will be moved there.

The resolution calls the institute “a treasure” worth keeping for other governments throughout Illinois. 

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