On Tuesday, after spending the large part of an hour on the accuracy of a Fall River Reporter headline (without saying Fall River Reporter or the headline), the Fall River City Council voted 8-1 to transfer $480,000, $283,223 of it from police salaries with the rest coming from police admin salaries and expenses, to pay for community maintenance and insurance. The councilors quickly dismissed a Fall River police union letter calling for the funds to go back to the police department.
For specifics, the money is going to pay for solid waste and workers’ compensation. That was the limited information available to the public on the agenda. To be even more specific, Director of Financial Services Mary Sahady on Tuesday, in front of the City Council, stated they are using some of the money to pay a 2017 disposal bill that was never paid – only 11 of 12 payments were made that year. In 2018 and 2019, 12 of 12 payments were made and for 2020 they are making 13 payments to make up the 2017 missed payment. Just so you understand this, someone didn’t pay a bill in 2017 (based on 11 of 12 payments being made) and now unused police overtime money is going to pay that bill. With many departments having surplus money, how did City leadership decide which department would pay the disposal bill instead of going into the general fund? Sahady stated Tuesday in front of the city council that it was based on who had the largest surpluses and the available police funds were the largest. They could have paid the 2017 bill with other department surpluses and allowed the police funds to go into the general fund, but because the police money was a large sum, it would be easier for them.
Many times on Tuesday, city councilors insinuated that the 2020 unused police funds can’t go back to the police, but that’s not true. As Councilor Cadime pointed out on Tuesday, if the city council voted not to transfer the money, it would go back to the police. He followed up with saying “they are not going to spend it. They can’t spend it and it will fall to free cash.” He is also the city councilor who didn’t know until recently that the police had 16 vacancies, didn’t know the police staffing levels, and was unaware until that night that there were reports that Fall River police were borrowing riot gear from the Westport Police Department to supplement their 1980’s era riot gear.
Just so you understand “the rules”, the City Council and Mayor Coogan can take 2020 allocated police funds that become a surplus and use it to pay a bill from 2017 that no one knows why it wasn’t paid or where that money is or went, but Mayor Coogan and the City Council can’t give the money back to the police or give it to them in the future. You can’t give the money to the police during a spike in crime and a police force that has 21 fewer police officers than New Bedford, a city with far less crime per FBI data? Well, you can, but you can’t, but you can. Confused? You’re not a city councilor that’s why you are confused.
On Wednesday, I did email all of the city councilors (except President Ponte who I texted on Tuesday) for an interview or to help explain these rules and their vote, but only Trott Lee, Chris Peckham, Cliff Ponte, and Brad Kilby responded. Chris Peckham explained his no vote – he is against transferring funds from the police when they could use new equipment and are understaffed with the uptick in crime. Trott Lee gave me an interview right away and can be seen here:
City Council President Cliff Ponte stated he was too busy on Tuesday to do an interview before this important vote and then told me I could not attend the city council session while permitting another journalist to attend the entire meeting. Just so you understand, I was not allowed to attend the city council meeting that spent an enormous amount of time trashing my headline and discussing the evils of social media (at one time even discussing in jest having an ordinance that forbids elected officials from social media). Brad Kilby did call while I was on the phone and when I called back I got his voice mail. The other city councilors did not reply to my email inquiry. I called Director of Financial Services Mary Sahady’s office and she has yet to return my call. So, the rules are too complex for the public and select journalists to understand, but when you inquire about the rules or to confirm specific details, very few get back to you. When information isn’t 100% clear, just blame Facebook and then vote.
There also may be some creative accounting going on. When I interviewed Mayor Coogan on Saturday before I posted my “controversial” article, he stated that CARES Act money (federal money for COVID-19 relief) was being used for police services. When asked by councilor Michelle Dionne on Tuesday how there could be a surplus in police funds when police reported a 176% increase in services in the third quarter, Mary Sahady explained that the police would be getting money from the federal government for responding to fireworks and Black Lives Matter protests. The follow-up questions that weren’t asked, but should have been asked are; Is this federal money guaranteed? What if the federal government decides that fireworks and protests aren’t valid COVID-19 expenses? Is this creative or dangerous accounting? Is this federal money a reason for the surplus in the first place (using federal money to create a municipal fund surplus)? These are questions I wanted to ask Director of Financial Services Mary Sahady and Mayor Coogan, but I haven’t received a call back from either at the time of this writing.
In summary, the City Council, at the request of Mayor Coogan, took money that was earmarked for the Fall River police department in FY2020, and is now using a portion of it to pay a 2017 disposal bill that no one knows why it wasn’t paid or where that money went. The other portion of the money went to a few workers’ compensation claims at the school department. While the reasons for a police surplus may be justified and explained in my original article (federal money, courts closed, vacant positions, etc), and mayor Coogan and the city council is not wrong to try to pay past debts, the rules for not giving the money back to the police are flimsy at best.
Mayor Coogan, just days before Tuesday’s City Council meeting, called a press conference to address the extreme spike is shootings in May and June that have accelerated in July. According to FBI statistics, Fall River was already one of the most dangerous cities in Massachusetts before this spike and per Councilor Cadime on Tuesday, he would like to see 12 patrols on the street, not the current 10. Couldn’t the $480,000 be sent to free cash and then in October be used to staff 12 patrols and also pay the bills for future court costs? Court dates are postponed, they don’t just disappear.
Per the New Bedford and Fall River police chief provided numbers, there are 21 fewer police officers on the force in Fall River than New Bedford, and Fall River has a higher crime rate. Fall River has had three police chiefs in less than a year. Thanks to my “controversial” article on Saturday, councilors Cadime and Ponte are going to bring the police department in front of the city council finance board to see if the police need more resources. Why not transfer the excess police funds to free cash and see if the money can be used at a later date? Maybe the new police Chief can use the money.
Finally, the City Council should also call for an investigation into why the 2017 disposal bill wasn’t paid and where the money went. Paying off a past mistake with police funds in the middle of a crime spike makes little sense to me.
Full City Council meeting can be seen here: