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Council OKs police cameras

  • Updated

Charleston City Council embraced the latest expansion of the police department's downtown camera network Tuesday, and with some dissent approved the city's $146 million budget for 2011.

Representatives of the East Side and West Side neighborhood associations encouraged council members to support the growing camera surveillance initiative, while the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about invasions of privacy and voyeurism.

"The police should not be policing themselves on this," said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU in South Carolina.

The latest camera in the wireless network will be mounted on the Embassy Suites hotel bordering Marion Square, to allow police to monitor goings-on in the park. Additional equipment, but not cameras, will be placed on the Francis Marion and Charleston Place hotels.

Together, the deals add up to a federally funded $466,698 contract for Avrio Group Surveillance Solutions of Easton, Md. The same company won a $316,461 contract, also federally funded, for the city's first phase of cameras.

The vote was unanimous.

Eventually, the city plans to add a total of 22 cameras to the 10 already in place monitoring the waterfront, City Market and the Gadsden Green housing development on Charleston's West Side. The second wave will cover the King and Market street corridors, and portions of the East Side and North Central neighborhoods.

Police Chief Greg Mullen said he also would like the ability to tap into existing security camera networks, such as at schools and medical complexes, so that police can benefit from real-time video of the locations while responding to incidents.

Final approval of the city's budget came and went with little incident Tuesday, the City Council having debated the spending plan at a previous meeting where it was preliminarily approved.

The budget does not raise any taxes or fees, other than the franchise fee for Berkeley Electric Cooperative. The franchise fee -- a charge on utility bills -- was raised to match the 5 percent rate approved last year for South Carolina Electric & Gas bills in the city. The rate currently is 3 percent, and both go up in January for city residents.

The spending plan is smaller than the city's previous two, down from the peak city budget of $147.7 million in 2009. With spending down slightly more than 1 percent over two years, Charleston has fared far better than the state, which slashed spending by about 40 percent during the Great Recession and is still cutting.

The state's reliance upon sales and income taxes, and the passage of tax cuts just before the recession hit, explain most of the contrast.

Still, the city will be trimming many services, eliminating the Police Department's Mounted Patrol, maintaining a hiring freeze and employees will get no raises.

Last year, city employees' pay was cut, mostly by not paying them on certain holidays.

The budget vote was 10-3, with Councilmen Jimmy Gallant, William Dudley Gregorie and Tim Mallard opposed.

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