Next year’s Harrisburg police force is going to take on a new look with the creation of a Community Services Division, which was approved as part of the 2021 Harrisburg City Budget.
City council members unanimously approved an amended budget Monday evening during a special legislative session. Councilwoman Shamaine Daniels was absent.
It is the largest creation of new jobs in the city’s history.
Councilwoman Ausha Green, who sits on the public safety committee, introduced an amendment that reduced the number of community services aides from 12 to seven. The idea behind the reduction is to make it more of a pilot program.
That amendment took the initial 23 proposed jobs down to 18. Funding the aides and their job descriptions were a popular discussion during two budget hearings and a special legislative meeting last week.
Green said Monday she didn’t want the funds that would have been appropriated to pay for the five jobs not being created reallocated anywhere else in the budget. She said she wanted to be “cautious with our fiscal situation.”
The aides would not be armed, Harrisburg Police Commissioner Tom Carter said. He described their job responsibilities at a budget hearing in general terms.
Among their responsibilities are pointing out available mental health agencies; maintaining a presence in the public by attending cookouts, fairs, and community service outings; offering solutions; talking to kids; and, giving officers information about houses that need to be boarded up.
Each of the aides would be assigned to the seven police districts in the city.
Council members also struck down hiring for a new community policing coordinator, who would replace the existing one. President Wanda Williams and Vice President Ben Allatt, chair of the council’s budget and finance committee, voted against not funding the coordinator.
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Councilman Westburn Majors said he thought there is “still management within” the division, however, Mayor Eric Papenfuse said that he thought that isn’t true.
“I think you just jeopardized the entire transition,” Papenfuse said.
The civilian division is an attempt to build a bridge between the community and the police force, Carter said during a budget hearing. Blake Lynch, the city’s community policing coordinator, will become the Director of Community Relations and Engagement.
Lynch said he’s already received interest from at least 40 people. He said once hired they would be there to “build trust with the community.”
He said they will be “from the city, for the city,” and they will be “the heart of the city, which is half the job.”
Papenfuse presented his budget to the city council on Nov. 24. Police personnel funding was increased by $3 million, but with the approved amendments that amount was lowered.
There has been pushback from the community, with some residents saying “no data, no dollars.” The residents who spoke against the new division and increased funding to police said the city government needs to be more transparent in its public safety actions.
There were a handful of other amendments proposed during the emergency session; however, none of them directly impacted the new division.
Next year’s plan spends about $136.3 million, down from approximately $137 million originally proposed. It relies heavily on drawing down over $20 million from the city’s general fund balance, which is essentially a savings account. The budget focuses on paying off debt, refinancing bond obligations, and largely funding public safety.
Projections for the next four years show that the general fund is expected to continue to dip down in 2022 and then start to rebuild financially from the COVID-19 recovery.
If anything unforeseen happens — an emergency declaration or shutdown order — the city can pull back on withdrawing from the city’s reserves.