Walla Walla City Council will seek outside funding for body and dash cameras for the Walla Walla Police Department over the next two years.

During a budget discussion Wednesday, Council added the purchase of equipment to its list of state and federal legislative priorities for the next two years.

Public comments were sparse during the second to last public hearing before the city adopts its budget for 2021-2022 on Dec. 2, which will also be the last day for public input.

Resident Noah Leavitt gave the only public comment Wednesday night at Council’s virtual meeting. He asked if the city could fund body and dash cameras from outside revenues, grants, or federal or state dollars rather than city dollars.

The question led Council to unanimously adopt their federal and legislative priorities, planned as an agenda item that night, with the addition of the equipment priority. The city backs additional funding for public safety, specifically to outfit police officers with body cameras and police vehicles with dash cameras, including the operational costs involved with using them.

Leavitt is a member of the Chief’s Advisory Committee, a citizens group formed to help provide input to Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber. The group has been actively discussing the need for body and dash cameras.

“We were briefed that the Finance Committee explored this and that there was interest in it and that this year’s budget didn’t seem like it was the right situation to move forward,” Leavitt told the Council.

“We didn’t have any conversation in the advisory board about whether the possibility of these kinds of alternative funding options might be available, so that’s why it seemed like it was appropriate to bring to Council tonight.”

In response, Council member Ted Koheler suggested the modification to the legislative agenda.

Officials will focus on this endeavor and many others, in their lobbying efforts at the state and federal levels.

The item was previously considered during budget discussions these past few weeks. It was brought up and requested by many residents during the city’s virtual town hall series, which took place during the summer and allowed the public to comment on police practices and hear from local authorities.

Mayor Tom Scribner said the Finance Committee, Council, city manager, and police chief discussed including body and dash cameras in the city’s 2021-22 biennium budget.

“For a number of reasons, one important one being the cost, not only the acquisition of that hardware itself, but personnel to deal with the videos and public records requests, etc... led to a decision not to specifically include it in this budget. But it’s an issue that we will consider going forward,” Scribner said.

Cameras would require $253,164 for the first year and another $211,979 annually for four more years if the city tapped AXON Enterprises, the industry standard, according to Bieber in a previous budget discussion.

Previous budget discussions

Body cameras was one of many topics discussed around the city’s biennium budget.

In a budget work session Nov. 9, the city announced plans to include eight vacant positions in the two-year budget, including one police officer and deputy chief of operations.

“We are still on a hiring freeze, but some positions are being advertised in anticipation of revenue recoveries,” Finance Director Jean Teasdale wrote in an email. “It depends on the revenue recovery, whether vacant positions will be filled or not.”

The city will leave three police officer positions as anticipated vacancies to allow the Chief’s Advisory Committee, currently looking into potential opportunities with differential call response for the police department, to analyze and assess how the department could better use the positions in the next two years, according to Teasdale.

If the economy does recover, the city may look at filling those positions earlier, she said.

The deputy chief of operations position, which has not been filled since 2011, is being included in the budget to assist Walla Walla Fire Department Chief Bob Yancey as he works on succession planning and the regional fire authority consolidation efforts.

The total cost of these two positions for two years is close to $500,000 and brings the general fund reserve from 13.51% to 12.14%, according to a previous budget work session presentation.

The ambulance fund was discussed at the Nov. 9 meeting as it presents a deficit every year, normally filled by the general fund. Impacts to the general fund from the COVID-19 pandemic eliminate this option without substantial damage to the reserves, she said.

Another source of funding needs to be identified for 2023 because city staff estimates a $1.2 million revenue shortfall, Teasdale said.

For 2021-’22 the city is proposing to increase the internal utility excise tax from 13% to 16.25%, increasing the revenue to the general fund to backfill forecasted ambulance fund shortfalls, she said. The utility excise tax will go back to 13% in 2023.

“The utility bill will not be impacted by this increase,” she wrote in an email.

The city is discussing an $8-10 ambulance utility fee as an option to recover the financial shortfalls. The issue will be brought up at a Council meeting in early 2021 and recommended by staff for adoption by April to be implemented in January 2023.

What a budget can accomplish

Finance Director Jean Teasdale gave a presentation at the beginning of the meeting Wednesday, which answered questions a resident previously submitted to the Council and listed some budget accomplishments from previous years.

She mentioned dramatically lowering the water loss rates since 1951 and the Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Program, which has been in place for 11 years and funded $34 million in infrastructure projects.

She said programs in Parks and Recreation have reached over 200,000 participants, served 25,000 free meals to youth, maintained 15 parks and 13,000 park, cemetery, and street trees, performed 220 burials at Mt. View Cemetery, and provided upkeep for 8.5 miles of trail.

The city library has had 360,000 items checked out every year, 20,000 library programs, 180,000 visitors, 5,000 new library patrons, and 14,000 computer users, she said.

Teasdale noted the city had done much more public outreach on the budget than in the past by adding additional work sessions and offering people opportunities to comment.

Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers the cities of Walla Walla and College Place as well as agriculture and the environment in the Walla Walla Valley. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and joined the Union-Bulletin's team in October 2019.