Questions about new civilian police unit dominate Harrisburg state budget hearing

The coronavirus pandemic played a big role in shaping the city of Harrisburg’s 2021 budget, however, during the first of two virtual public hearings into the city’s budget on Tuesday, most of the discussion focused on a proposed community services division within the Harrisburg Police Department.

The next budget hearing is scheduled for Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. on Harrisburg’s WHBG20 YouTube channel. City council members are expected to vote on the budget on Thursday.

Harrisburg police officials answered a number of questions about job descriptions, funding and what is being done to protect all residents in the city.

The civil division is an attempt to build a bridge between the community and the police force, Commissioner Tom Carter said. His comments were backed up by Blake Lynch, the city’s community policing coordinator.

Lynch is expected to become the proposed director of community relations and engagement, which would be one of 23 new positions. Twenty-one of these positions are civilian.

When the budget passes, Lynch could potentially oversee 12 new community service aides. The assistants attracted a lot of attention from members of the city council, who wanted to know their job descriptions and whether they would be armed.

“They’re there to build trust with the community,” Lynch said.

Community service aides are responsible for quality of life issues; pointing out available mental health agencies; maintain a public presence by attending barbecues, fairs and community service outings; propose solutions ; talk to children; and give agents information about homes that need to be barricaded.

“They would never handcuff anyone at any time,” Carter said.

Next year’s plan spends about $137 million and is heavily dependent on drawing $25 million from the city’s general fund balance, which is essentially a savings account. The budget focuses on paying down debt, refinancing bond obligations and largely funding public safety.

Just over $10 million would remain in the general fund in 2021 if the board approves the plan as presented. Projections for the next four years show the fund will drop even further in 2022 and then begin to rebuild financially from the COVID-19 recovery.

The fund is estimated to grow to 14% in 2023 and then to 18% in 2024, Mayor Eric Papenfuse said.

If something unforeseen happens again next year — a declaration of emergency or a shutdown order — Papenfuse said the city can put the brakes on by tapping into city reserves.

The current budget does not include a tax increase.

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