By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Norman City Council members are split on whether to move forward with an April ballot for the renewal of the Public Safety Sales Tax or wait until August.
The proposed ballot language is on the city council agenda for first reading tonight.
Typically, first reading items are not discussed. However, that doesn’t mean the election date — and potentially some ballot language details — won’t be changed before it hits the polls. Discussion by council members will continue at a future work study session prior to moving forward.
At Monday night’s non-voting study session, Council member Tom Kovach said the renewal of the PSST was brought up early to allow for public discussion. April was selected as the month most likely to achieve a successful outcome.
The public didn’t see it that way. At the recent public meeting over the tax renewal, some residents expressed concerns that the vote was happening too quickly. An August election date was proposed.
“If we’re going to ask someone for their opinion, we might as well listen to it,” Kovach said Monday.
He originally supported an April election but now favors waiting until August.
“I’m not arguing against the package,” Kovach said. “Time is needed to educate the public.”
Council member Greg Heiple disagrees.
“This is as clean a process as the city has ever had,” Heiple said.
Heiple doesn’t want the PSST to get mixed in with state elections and other issues going on and thinks April, when city residents also will be voting on council seat positions, is the ideal time.
“We have done our homework,” Heiple said.
Council members Chad Williams and Robert Castleberry favor waiting until August for the vote.
Other council members seem to be taking the matter under advisement, but some said after the meeting they are now considering an August rather than an April ballot.
The PSST currently supports 71 police and fire positions with the city. Those positions are in addition to the positions already paid by the city through the general budget. The city also used PSST funds to build fire stations No. 8 and No. 9 and to purchase badly needed equipment.
The city council asked for more details Monday on two items to be included as part of the PSST renewal package.
Some Norman residents were concerned about the proposed $15 million radio system package included as a proposed capital expenditure to be covered by the PSST renewal.
Maj. J.D. Younger told council members the radio system is a complex system that would serve Norman police, fire EMSStat and all city services. The system needs to provide coverage for 196 square miles. Part of the expense would be five to six towers to relay the signals. Worst-case scenario, that could include purchasing some land, Younger said.
Currently, Norman only has two towers and there are dead zones.
Norman Police Chief Keith Humphrey and Fire Chief James Fullingim said the system fails when it is needed most during crisis events, such as the wildfires of August 2012 and May’s tornado.
Council members also asked additional questions about including school resource officers in the PSST package. The proposal is for 13 officers. That cost would be shared with Norman Public Schools, which has a dedicated funding source in place to pay for those salaries.
The officers would provide a safer environment for students and faculty and would build relationships with teens.
“Kids want to know answers, and there’s no one they can ask. This provides a resource,” Humphrey said.
Recent incidents with an active shooter in schools across the U.S. indicated that tragedy was reduced due to officers in schools, he said.
“They are problem solvers,” Humphrey said.
The Norman Police Department is taking an active role of working in the school and teaching programs to reduce bullying and prevent date rape. Having officers in schools who build relationships with students also helps police recruit for its explorer program and down the road for recruiting future officers.
“It’s about building long-term relationships,” Humphrey said.
He said the presence of school officers would increase safety, improve response time and reduce property damage in and around schools. Chief Humphrey was an SRO at one point in his career.
“It’s all about quality of life,” he said.
If the PSST is approved with school officers as part of the package, the program will not take officers off the street but would have another academy to fill those extra positions. Officers are carefully selected for school duty and must have the right personality to work with students. The CLEET certified officers would not enforce school policy or dress codes. They are police officers who only enforce the law.
Council member Lynne Miller, a former teacher, said she supports the cost share proposal to add the school officers.
“I’ve had many positive experiences,” Miller said.
The school and the city have discussed adding school officers for more than two years.
“This has been something that has been discussed since I’ve been here,” Humphrey said. “The school is part of the community. The school district is a part of this dialogue.”
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