Meadville City Council’s first in-person meeting since October, which convenes today at 6 p.m. in the former city building at 984 Water St., may draw enough of a crowd to reach the maximum 25 percent occupancy allowed under state COVID-19 mitigation rules.
Featured among a full agenda is a presentation on allowing the Crawford County Public Safety Department to take responsibility for emergency dispatching services currently performed by Meadville Police Department. When a similar proposal was the focus of a special 2016 council meeting, about 20 residents attended, the vast majority of whom were opposed.
The meeting, which comes three days after state restrictions on indoor gatherings were increased from 15 percent of maximum occupancy, will be held in a conference room that can hold up to 99 people under normal circumstances. With the 25 percent restriction, the chamber can accommodate 24 people.
Interim City Manager Gary Johnson expects five council members, seven staff members and two media representatives, which leaves room for 10 members of the public in the chamber. Johnson also expects to accommodate an additional six to 10 people in seating that will be arranged in the hallway adjacent to the conference room’s open rear area.
“Frankly, given past attendance and this just being the kickoff of the 911 dispatch discussion,” Johnson said in an email to the Tribune, “I'm hoping that will be enough.”
Seating in the hallway would be arranged to allow for 6 feet of social distancing, according to Johnson, while still remaining close enough to see and hear the meeting. Council members are typically seated at the room’s far end, which is about 10 yards away from where the conference room meets the hallway.
Eliminating city police dispatch staff and allowing the county to provide dispatch services has been among possible cost-saving moves for the cash-strapped city for at least 15 years. In 2006, such a move was “very strongly” recommended by the state’s Early Intervention Program in its review of the city’s management practices. At the time, savings were estimated at $106,000 to $111,000 per year.
The possibility was raised again in 2014, culminating in a 3-2 vote to keep city dispatch services in 2016. At the time, staff estimated that the city stood to save nearly $120,000 annually by ceding dispatch responsibilities to the county. Meadville is the only municipality in the county that maintains its own dispatch staff. Titusville, the only other city in the county and home to one of the county's three other full-time police departments, switched to county dispatch in 2002.
The possibility of eliminating city dispatch has come up again in recent months as council wrestled with a budget deficit of $650,000 late last year. A similar deficit for the 2022 budget is expected later this year. In addition, consultants who examined city finances last year recently listed reconsidering the elimination of city dispatch services as one of their immediate recommendations for addressing the city’s financial challenges.
Mayor LeRoy Stearns led the opposition to eliminating city dispatch in 2016 while Councilman Sean Donahue was in favor of the move. Council members Larry McKnight, Jim Roha and Autumn Vogel were not on council at that time. Stearns cited resident opposition to the move in opposing the proposal. Donahue cited the potential savings in supporting it.
The personnel chart included in the 2021 city budget shows that the city’s police dispatch staff consists of three full-time positions and one part-time position.
Also on the meeting’s agenda, council is expected to give final approval to formation of a blighted property review committee and to appoint committee members. Council will vote on preliminary approval of updated property maintenance code requirements as well and will discuss property maintenance code enforcement agreements between the city and Hayfield Township and Linesville borough.
Other measures up for a vote include an agreement with Hydroblox Inc. regarding city use of a greenspace area near the former Seco/Warwick location on Mercer Street.
Council plans to discuss an emergency assistance services agreement between the city and Meadville Area Ambulance Service.
Council is also expected to accept the final report on city finances as part of the state’s Strategic Management Planning Program. The program is the successor to the Early Intervention Program in which the city participated in 2016. A summary of the report presented in December included the recommendation to reconsider elimination of the police department’s dispatch services.
Reviewing the move has been at the top of the list of priorities included in the agenda for each council meeting since early February.
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.