Council seeks more details on SRO plan

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

Funding questions proved to be the sticking point for council members Monday as Mayor Rick Hall and Police Chief Maverick Campbell asked the city to spend $100,000 on a School Resource Officer (SRO) program in a partnership with Liberty Hill ISD.

The Council unanimously approved moving forward with crafting an agreement, but stopped short of pledging any funds to the project, pending all the details.

“Can we say yes we want to do this, but we want to wait for the MOU to come out, and forget about the $100,000 until we find out about what is going on?” asked Council Member Liz Rundzieher. “I’m definitely for it, but I don’t like blank checks.”

The financial questions, raised by Council Member Ron Rhea and Rundzieher, were the concern, specifically how much each entity would be responsible for and what additional costs, particularly in the future, the city might face.

Multiple meetings have taken place between Hall, Campbell, Assistant Superintendent Chad Pirtle and Superintendent Rob Hart from Liberty Hill ISD. Last week, the school board authorized Pirtle and Hart to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the City of Liberty Hill utilizing two Liberty Hill police officers to serve as SROs for the school district.

In the district’s preliminary budget proposal, $100,000 has been allocated for law enforcement.

Pirtle thanked the Council for its efforts to work with the school district, and said that a lot of research had gone into the process on their end leading up to Monday’s request.

“Recently, I met with Mayor Rick Hall, and he expressed his desire and commitment to partnering with the district to provide school resource officer services to our district,” Pirtle said. “We talked about details in regards to hiring and staffing, vehicles, responsibilities, costs, implementation timeline and communications among other topics. When considering all aspects of law enforcement in our schools, the district believes partnering with the City on this program is the best option at this time, based on conversations we have had.”

Hall said he hopes to bring back a draft MOU for the Council to consider on July 9, in an effort to have a program in place Aug. 1

Last-minute questions
As the Council moved to make a motion and vote, City Administrator Greg Boatright, who had not previously been involved in the planning or any meetings with school district administrators, raised a handful of suggestions based on issues of concern.

“Is this in addition, Maverick (Campbell), to what you’ve already requested in your new budget?” he asked the police chief.

Campbell said that this expense would be in addition to the budget request he had already submitted for the current budgeting cycle.

One of the other key issues of an agreement involves bringing the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office into the mix due to the police department not having jurisdiction on three LHISD campuses – the high school, Bill Burden and Rancho Sienna elementary schools.

“Because we do currently have three schools that are outside of the city limits, part of that MOU will be an agreement between Williamson County Sheriff’s Department, Liberty Hill Police Department and the school district, giving Liberty Hill Police Department first jurisdiction for those schools because they are outside of the current city limits,” Hall said.

Addressing the question of jurisdiction with another option, Boatright asked if annexation of the campuses into the city might be a solution.

“Have you looked at the possibility – because the jurisdictional issues are an issue – of bringing the school district’s campuses into the city as part of the agreement? In an inter-local agreement, what you have is give and take, so if we have an understanding of where the jurisdictional issue is taken out of the equation, that removes the need for Williamson County to be part of the agreement,” Boatright said. “Even if we don’t bring them into the city immediately, but have it written into the agreement where when we annex or the MUD goes away, that it would come into the city as part of the annexation process. The reason I say that is because I think it would be much cleaner, rather than having three different jurisdictions involved in the agreement.”

He also suggested a different arrangement of support for the school district’s law enforcement plans that could streamline the process even further.

“Another thing I would suggest to look at is, and you guys have obviously been involved more than I have, but what if we did an agreement where we made a contribution and the school district had their police department, and we just made an annual contribution and had the understanding we had a certain number of hours that would be committed back to the city as part of the agreement, thereby removing ourselves from the process of being the sponsoring agency,” Boatright suggested.

While none of these issues were discussed at the meeting, with a vote taken immediately after, Hall said Tuesday that all options would be discussed, but that the focus was really on the students more than the funding issues.

“We are definitely discussing all the points that Greg (Boatright) brought up, and in order for this to work successfully we’ve got to figure out what’s going to be best for budgets for the school district and the city, but what’s also best for our students, and we’re putting that ahead of what’s best for the district and the city right now to make sure the main priority is students are first.”

He added that once an initial agreement was drawn up, more people would be involved in the discussion.

“I actually spoke to Greg (Boatright) this morning (June 26) about this, that once we get the initial pass, then we will start bringing in the school board and Greg, but we just figured the fewer people right now the quicker we can get through it because we are on such a short time frame,” Hall said.

Initial cost estimates
Liberty Hill Finance Director Michel Sorrell said the $100,000 mentioned on the council agenda was for the remainder of 2018 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 31, and based on current information, the future cost to the city would be more like $160,000.

“That’s why this next fiscal year kind of jumps up, because then you’ve got to provide computers and training, travel and all of the things that go with it,” she said.

Police vehicles was another issue raised, with Sorrell saying those involved in the planning so far believed they could purchase less expensive vehicles than the standard Chevrolet Tahoes currently used on patrol.

Hall said neither party – the district or city – could commit to a specific expense structure or cost at this point.

“I’ve spoken with a lot of the surrounding districts that have SRO programs and each one has a little bit of difference in how they handle it, as far as is it a shared expense, is there a percentage for this and percentage for that, so we’re really looking at the big picture in the short period of time that we have so we can have something ready for the school year,” he said. “We’re still in talks right now trying to figure out what that looks like of how the expenses of how it will play out. We’re really hopeful to try to get something to our next council meeting on July 9 that will explain the first pass of expenses and how that will work.”

Who pays?
The question of how much of the burden taxpayers in different areas will be asked to absorb remains unanswered.

Taxpayers across the school district would cover the cost of the district’s portion, but taxpayers inside the city limits would cover their portion of the district’s cost through school taxes, plus the cost of the city’s contribution to the program through city taxes that others in the school district will not be paying.

Hall said again that details on how the costs would be divided were a work in progress.

“We really haven’t gotten into how the financials are going to work right now, we’re just trying to get the agreement set up so that the agreement will say how much time (the officers) are devoted to the school district versus how much time they will be with the city in the summer and on school breaks,” he said. “We’ll try to get that narrowed down first so that we can then use that as a document to move forward as to how the expenses will be laid out.

“We’re doing all this with a multitude of discussions on a very short time frame to do it all. We’re definitely looking at all avenues, but the initial thought on both the city and school district sides is what’s best for our children first,” Hall said.

Mike@LHIndependent.com

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