Charleston Mayor Riley calls for tax hike to fund policing program at elementary schools, downtown
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s administration has drafted a new police safety plan meant to protect all the city’s elementary schools from the random violence that struck Newtown, Conn.
Amount: $3.9 millionTaxpayer cost: $40 more a year on a house valued at $250,000 For: Would pay for 19 police officers to patrol all the public and private elementary schools in the city limits; eight more officers for patrolling the “entertainment zone” around bars, restaurants and clubs downtown; and hire 45 firefighters, build two new first stations and four new engines, tankers and ladder trucks.
But it faces an uncertain future tied to what essentially is an emergency tax increase by City Council and comes when federal taxes, gas prices, food and other costs are also going up.
Riley announced Monday he will seek a $3.9 million tax hike this month on Charleston property owners to fund 19 officers assigned to police all 35 of the public and private elementary schools within the city limits.
The tax increase — if passed would become the city’s first since 2008 — would also go toward hiring eight other officers to cover the increasingly popular and rowdy late-night “entertainment zone” downtown.
A third part of Riley’s tax hike would go toward building and staffing two new fire stations: one in West Ashley and the other on Daniel Island.
If approved by council, the increase would cost the owner of a home valued at $250,000 an extra $40 a year.
Discussion on the tax increase is scheduled to begin at next week’s previously scheduled council meeting. Riley is proposing the increase be incorporated as an amendment to the current 2013 operating budget ratified in December.
Already there is opposition. Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson said Monday the city is only 10 weeks removed from its budget debate and wondered why there’s an urgency now for fire stations and more police downtown.
She also questioned how it became the city’s responsibility to create a blanket protection service that covers every elementary school child in Charleston from here on out.
“Fundamentally, I can’t support a tax increase right now,” added Wilson, who chairs council’s Public Safety Committee.
Riley unveiled the proposal Monday, saying it was a comprehensive measure aimed at thwarting something akin to the mass shooting that killed more than two dozen at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“The guns are out there,” he said during a meeting with members of The Post and Courier’s editorial board. “The high-capacity magazines are out there.” Riley called Sandy Hook, and incidents like it, “domestic terrorism.”
As envisioned, small teams of at least three city police officers would be assigned to patrol schools divided into eight geographic zones, or “clusters,” spread out across the city.
For example, one of the clusters for West Ashley would see officers assigned to Drayton Hall, Montessori Community, Pattison’s Academy, Springfield, Charleston Christian and Abundant Life schools.
One of the James Island clusters would have officers moving about Harbor View, Murray-LaSaine, Stiles Point, James Island Christian and Nativity School.
In Charleston’s case, the officers would police through random visits and on-site stays, traveling from school to school at irregular intervals. The idea is different from North Charleston’s response, which agreed earlier this year to spend $2 million to hire and equip police officers for the city’s elementary schools. Most middle and high schools already had a full-time officer on site.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said the random patrols would be a better deterrent than in having one officer assigned permanently to each building.
“If something happens to that one person, you’re finished at that point,” he said, adding that the strength of the plan is being “predictably unpredictable,” since it keeps potential intruders off-guard.
The officers’ duty would not be geared inward toward school discipline, Mullen said, but more toward encouraging outward safety and identifying potential threats, something he said should allay fears of police becoming too entrenched.
“I don’t want these officers to be coaches and counselors and teachers,” he said.
Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott said she had not seen details of the plan but said it might be something she could support if the officers are focused on the “outer perimeter” of a school and don’t bring interference to students.
School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said Monday the school board made it clear it would welcome any proposal to monitor the safety of students, and she’s glad to know Riley wants to partner with the district. She applauded him for coming up with a creative, sustainable and long-term solution.
“I don’t think that any residents’ right to safety ends at a school door,” she said. “When they’re in school, they should have the same protection they do in any public building.”
She didn’t take a position on the proposed tax increase but said hiring additional officers has a cost. Although she’d like to think officials could fit that into existing budgets, she said she’s realistic and appreciates the city’s willingness to use its money this way.
“This is what they do well,” Coats said. “Our job is education. Our job is not patrolling. Educating children is a partnership, and students should be kept safe. It should be everyone’s priority.”
Riley said the other two parts of the request also come in the interest of public safety since officers are needed downtown to handle the greater popularity of bars and restaurants in the later hours. Fire Chief Karen Brack, meanwhile, said the new fire stations are needed in part to increase coverage and push accreditation. The West Ashley site would be in the vicinity of Carolina Bay, where there has been a jump in homes and apartment complexes in the area. The other site would be the more rural Cainhoy area on Daniel Island.
City Council will formally take up the next Tuesday.Diette Courrégé Casey contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.