St. George residents ask for clarity on public safety portion of proposed city budget

ST. GEORGE — Earlier this month the St. George City Council held the first of two public hearings for the city’s proposed $519 million budget for the 2024 fiscal year. A recurring theme of comments and questions related to the public safety portion of the budget and why the city is investing in the mass purchase of new vehicles, firearms and other items.

in this file photo, St. George Police responds to a crash incident on 100 South, St. George, Utah, Nov. 19, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The public safety portion of the pending FY 2024 budget is projected to be $46.6 million, or 44%, of the city’s $108 million general fund and is a 5% increase in spending over last year’s budget. Outside of that is an additional $17.8 million spread across the city’s budget that also applies to facets of public safety, making for a projected total of $64.4 million.

Among the notable and big ticket items of public safety in the budget are the 26 new public safety personnel – police officers, firefighters and civilian personnel – the purchase of 27 replacement vehicles, guns, radios and a new armored police vehicle and two new fire stations.

“Do we need an armored SWAT vehicle?” asked St. George resident turned City Council candidate Kimball Willard. “Do we need an armored assault vehicle right now? Is there a war going on that I as a citizen am not aware of going on in Dixie Downs?”

St. George News took this and other budget questions to the city of St. George, and St. George Police Chief Kyle Whitehead provided a response via email.

“The current armored vehicle, which was a military surplus machine, is obsolete and has numerous maintenance and safety issues,” Whitehead wrote. “With a city of our size, having an armored vehicle could be useful in a dangerous situation.”

Resident Kimball Willard speaks to the City Council about the proposed $519 million budget and calls it “obscene” for its size, St. George, Utah, June 1, 2023 | Photo courtesy of the city of St. George / CEC, St. George News

David Cordero, the city of St. George’s communications and marketing director, said replacement parts for the current vehicle no longer are readily available, thus necessitating an upgrade.

The armored vehicle has been used at various times by St. George Police, particularly during SWAT actions or when a suspect barricades themselves in a home or other property and creates a standoff situation.

A replacement is set to run the city around $336,000, according to the proposed budget.

Resident April McKee followed up with questions repeated by others as to why the city was financing replacement police cars, radios and firearms.

“Usually a well-maintained firearm can last decades,” she said, adding she wanted to know what the criteria for replacing a police vehicle were, and if the older vehicles were rotated to other uses within the city once replaced.

Overall, there are 27 replacement police vehicles listed in the budget at a cost of $1.7 million. Whitehead clarified there are 23 vehicles listed for 2024 with the remaining four being rolled over from last year’s budget. The last four haven’t arrived yet due to supply chain issues, he wrote.

During the city’s June 1 public hearing on the budget, City Manager John Willis said the city’s fleet mechanics put the police vehicles through a 15-point checklist to make sure they remain road worthy. When they are no longer deemed suitable for police use, the city considers ways to reuse them.

In this file photo, St. George Police Department’s SWAT team mobilizes for an early morning incident in the southwest area of St. George, Utah, March 26, 2017 | Submitted photo, St. George News

Whitehead addressed the reasoning behind the police force getting new service pistols, which is budgeted at $168,000.

“The first thing has to do with the age of the firearms,” the police chief wrote. “Many of them are 10 years old or older and have experienced significant wear in training. Also, the new red dot optics system allows for officers to be more precise in shooting, and the red dot optics are not compatible to some of our older guns.”

Cordero added that St. George Police officers engage in firearms training at least once a month versus a regular citizen who may take a gun out to the range just a few times a year. The latter firearm is likely to see a long life over one that is used on a regular basis.

Concerning the need for new radios McKee asked about, Whitehead said 70% of the police department’s new radios are not compliant with the state’s new radio system that goes into effect in 2024. Radios used by the fired department are also being replaced to meet this need.

The new two-way radios will work with the P25 radio system and will run the city $761,300. However, this cost is being covered through a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

A call for clarity

As Willard, McKee and other residents asked about public safety and other items listed in the budget, another theme arose during the public hearing – a request for more clarity regarding the city budget. While they can see items listed in the budget, they said there isn’t much, if any reason readily given as to why the city plans to purchase those items.

“The budget sounds good, but people have a lot of questions about what it’s all for,” resident Mike McKee told the City Council. “We need answers to questions, especially when you’re asking for money.”

St. George City Councilman Jimmie Hughes speaks on the city’s proposed 2024 budget, St. George, Utah, June 1, 2023 | Photo courtesy of the city of St. George / CEC, St. George News

Willis, along with council members Gregg McArthur and Natalie Larsen, said the council asked similar questions about the budget in detail during previous meetings. The answers the public is looking for can be found in recordings of those meetings, they said.

However, Hughes said the city could possibly do better regarding letting the tax-paying public know about the budgeting process and the reasons behind why the city is listing particular items for purchase.

“I don’t know how you make that stuff real interesting, but we’ll continue to try doing that,” he said. “But I can promise you there has never been, in all the time that I’ve been here – and I’m the old guy up here – a more transparent process and more time spent to try and make sure that we have the information.”

Still, city residents need to engage with the City Council if they have questions or concerns that reviewing the budget may not resolve, he said.

“We want to hear from you as well,” Hughes said. “Believe it or not, we do want to hear from you.”

The next and final public hearing for the proposed 2024 city budget is set for this Thursday at 5 p.m. during the next city council meeting.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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