A routine city budget hearing Tuesday evening quickly morphed into an occasionally tense discussion about the size of the city's police department, which at least one group says is far too large for a community the size of Carbondale.
While scrutiny of Carbondale's police is nothing new, the grassroots organization Carbondale Spring and one of its organizers, Nick Smaligo, contend that the city's police department is about twice the size of departments in similarly populated towns -- and they say "right-sizing" the force could help to pay for the organization's ambitious, progressive agenda for the city's future.
At the same time, however, some city officials say they have no intention of cutting the size of the department, and that in fact it has aided in a gradual decrease in Carbondale's crime rates.
Tuesday's public hearing before the city council featured several speakers affiliated with the Carbondale Spring initiative, and Mayor Mike Henry came into verbal conflict with some of them on multiple occasions. Later in the meeting, Henry said he regretted how he handled some of their comments.
The proposed city budget for FY2020, which must be enacted by the beginning of May, carves out nearly $10.3 million to fund the police department, accounting for nearly a third of the city's overall budgeted expenditures. The department currently employs about 81 people.
"That's double the number of police officers, double the number of police employees for the average city of this size -- and for every similarly sized college town in Illinois I could find," Smaligo said, citing statistics compiled by the FBI. Smaligo also questioned the metrics used to determine the department's reported calls for service.
Other speakers echoed Smaligo's concerns, although City Manager Gary Williams cautioned against comparing communities that could be different on many levels aside from population.
Citing decreases in reported crime in Carbondale, Williams expressed confidence in the department's current size.
"I'm pretty satisfied with the staffing levels we're currently at," Williams said.
Henry, too, said he saw little reason to make any change, drawing on his own more than 50 years living in and near Carbondale.
"This is the best police department we've ever had," Henry said, warning against any reduction in its size. "That will hurt the community. That will hurt SIU enrollment."
Council member Adam Loos pointed to the fact that the city's budget process means that the coming fiscal year's spending decisions have essentially already been made, which bothered commenter Retha Daugherty, who asked what point there was in holding a public hearing when there is little chance for changing anything.
Council member Jessica Bradshaw suggested more conversation about the police issue may be in order.
"What we need to do is have a discussion as a community," she said. "I think there's an opportunity here for all of us to get together to work on something."