Lebanon’s city council heard a proposal Wednesday night from local organizers to reallocate 50% of the city’s police budget to social services, like mental health treatment and affordable housing.
The proposal comes from the Upper Valley Democratic Socialists of America. The group wants $3 million from the police budget reallocated to social service organizations by 2022 to help support things like mental health treatment and affordable housing.
About 150 people attended the virtual meeting, and 41 gave a public comment, including Olivia Shin, who lives in Lebanon’s Ward 2. She said she supports the proposal, and thinks police should not be handling mental health or substance use calls.
“There seems to be a notion in this country that we can train police to do any job in this country and I don't think that is true,” she said.
Siddharth Agrawal, of Ward 1, said he strongly supported the Lebanon Police Department, and pointed to the city’s daytime population, which can increase to 30,000 to 40,000 people, as they work and shop in Lebanon.
“We saw a bunch of nice things that it’d be great for our community to have,” Agrawal said. “The ask underneath is to defund our police department 50%, and that comes with a whole bunch of, what I say, are bad things.”
The group’s proposal includes cuts for the upcoming 2021 budget: those include hiring freezes and restrictions on overtime.
Local business owners expressed concerns about police responsiveness with a reduced police force.
But others, like Addison Kamb, who works with children who have autism or have diagnoses on the autism spectrum, say they want to see an increase in funding for services that affect vulnerable populations.
Kamb says she often thinks about the future of the children she works with, and she said she knows people with disabilities have an “increased chance of being involved in a violent encounter with police.”
“For people with disabilities, safety cannot exist for them without adequate access to human services,” she said. “I’m hearing a lot of people say we support this, but not with this money. But I’d like to see where else this money is going to come from?”
Several city councilors, the city manager and mayor said they opposed the proposed cut, including Karen Liot-Hill, a councilor at-large.
But Liot-Hill did say she would be interested in scheduling a meeting between the police department, the city’s human services department and social service organizations in the area to talk about how to best meet community needs.
“What I’ve heard a lot tonight is about people who are in crisis, and people in need, and making sure we’re meeting the needs of people particularly in crisis,” she said. “That’s something that we all support. We might not agree on how to get there, but we agree a lot more than we disagree on.”
Mayor Tim McNamara said he did not support the DSA’s proposal, and that he wanted a budget where each department could function as efficiently as possible.
“We are, in many ways, unfortunate to live in a state where there is no or very little regional support for a lot of the issues that were identified tonight,” he said. “One of the problems with allocating additional resources to human services is that people will tend to gravitate towards those areas where those services are provided.”
The more that’s provided by Lebanon, McNamara said, the more demand there would be for those services.
“As we all know, state law forces that on cities and towns,” he said. “There needs to be a more regional solution to a lot of these issues.”
The Lebanon city council will approve the 2021 budget before the end of December.