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Some SC cities cut police funding amid coronavirus budget crunch, lack of federal aid

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Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook directs police during protests on May 30, 2020. The Columbia department is one of several that has experienced funding cuts this year in response to budget shortfalls due to the coronavirus pandemic. File/Thomas Hammond/Provided

COLUMBIA — After a summer of protests that included demands from some activists to defund the police, an increasing number of South Carolina cities are now cutting back on spending for their local departments. But it's not for the reason those protesters were suggesting.

Rather than in response to instances of police brutality, the budget cuts for police departments in several cities across South Carolina have come because of the revenue shortfalls they are experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic and the lack of assistance they are getting from the federal government. The issue has even become part of South Carolina's hotly contested Senate campaign.

In Columbia, the police budget approved in June was $2 million lower than the previous fiscal year due to citywide spending cuts forced by the COVID-19 induced recession, which came as the city's mayor pleaded with Congress to provide more federal assistance to mitigate the financial damage from the pandemic.

Myrtle Beach, highly dependent on tourism revenue that dried up during the pandemic, reduced police spending by almost $3 million as one of many budget cuts in response to the shortfall, even as a grant from the Justice Department allowed it to add new officers.

The Spartanburg police budget decreased by about $1 million and the city was unable to follow through on earlier promises to give pay raises to officers.

Mount Pleasant delayed plans for a new $1.5 million public safety training center, which project documents said is needed to "maintain the current level of police protection and fire and emergency services."

While these cities and others have been forced to trim their police funding, some officials have watched in frustration as partisan logjams in Congress have failed to produce any new financial aid for state and local governments in months that could potentially ease the burden.

"If that aid did get approved and we were able to get some funding, that would help tremendously," said Columbia city councilwoman Tameika Isaac-Devine. "All of us agree that we need to be increasing our police department budget, not decreasing it, so that was just a reflection on where we are financially."

Many South Carolina cities had enough savings to weather the initial storm, and public safety is generally the last place that local governments look to cut from in times of financial stress, said Scott Slatton, director of advocacy and communications at the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

But the financial troubles some are experiencing could become more widespread as the pandemic continues.

"You have to expect that the longer we go without the economy that we were experiencing, the greater potential there is for revenue effects on cities and towns," Slatton said.

One of the core sticking points in negotiations for broad coronavirus relief has been state and local aid.

Democrats sought as much as $900 billion for governments around the country, while Republicans preferred drastically smaller figures — closer to the $150 billion that was approved in the initial coronavirus relief bill in March. 

Democrats also wanted to give state and local governments more flexibility to spend the money however they need to plug holes in their budget and open it up to a wider range of cities.

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With neither party willing to budge far enough to reach a compromise, it now appears increasingly likely that no agreement will be reached before the Nov. 3 election, and some lawmakers fear that relief will still not materialize for several months after that.

"Unfortunately, local officials have had to rely on their own means for so long that I would never advise them to rely on the federal government to help them out, and that's being borne out now," Slatton said.

That hasn't stopped city officials from trying to procure more help. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin testified before Congress in May that cities like his needed "direct and targeted fiscal assistance" in order to avoid funding cuts for critical public safety programs.

"Cities are facing major public health and public safety challenges at the same time we are facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis," Benjamin said. "Demand and need for core local government services has increased significantly at the same time we are all projecting unprecedented levels of revenue loss."

In August, Benjamin joined Mayors Barbara Blain-Bellamy of Conway and Joseph McElveen of Sumter along with scores of others across the country in signing a letter to President Donald Trump asking for $250 billion in flexible aid, warning that the current situation is "threatening public safety."

The topic of state and local aid has also seeped into some of the political races in South Carolina.

In his campaign against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison has responded to the Republican incumbent's allegations that he would defund the police by noting that Graham has not pushed for more aid to state and local governments, including in an interview this month with The Post and Courier.

"How do we fund our police forces? States and local governments," Harrison said. "And when you don't give states and local governments the resources right now, because they desperately need it, then that means you're not going to fund what? Police forces. I mean, it is a simple no-brainer, folks."

While Graham voted for the initial coronavirus relief bill that included $150 billion for state and local aid and has said law and order is "the defining issue of the election," he balked at Democratic requests for $900 billion in a follow-up package, telling The Post and Courier in August that such a high figure is "not going to fly."

Graham's spokesman Kevin Bishop said the senator "supports helping state and local governments, particularly our police departments and first responders, deal with the fallout from COVID-19," but he does not support "the Democrats' plan to bail out blue states and big cities for decades of poor financial decisions."

"There is a huge difference between lending a helping hand in a time of need and bailing out from years of bad decisions," Bishop said. "He supports helping while Democrats support bailouts.”

With congressional negotiators still at loggerheads over the amount of funds to distribute to cities, it could be as long as several more months before any aid arrives.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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