ITHACA, N.Y.—Originally, just eight of the 15 vacant officers at the Ithaca Police Department (IPD) were funded in Acting Mayor Laura Lewis’ proposed 2023 budget, but a last minute push led by City of Ithaca Alderpersons Cynthia Brock and George McGonigal resulted in Common Council amending the budget to set aside funds for IPD to potentially fill all 15 of those positions in 2023.

While the original eight positions can be hired for as soon as possible in 2023, the  amendment allows for the additional seven to be hired in December 2023. In an instance where the city hadn’t passed an amendment to commit funds to hiring officers at IPD, Common Council could have made the funds available through the City of Ithaca’s restricted contingency funds in 2023.

The decision is symbolic in a sense — an attempt by the city to signal that it is willing to invest in incoming officers and to bolster the department’s recruiting efforts. 

The amendment, which pulled an additional $52,843.50 out of the City of Ithaca’s fund balance to make the hiring of the seven vacancies possible passed 7 to 3, with Alderpersons Jorge DeFendini and Phoebe Brown, and Acting Mayor Lewis voting against on Wednesday’s budget meeting.

DeFendini and Brown raised similar concerns about the amendment potentially reinforcing a “false narrative” that Ithaca’s Reimagining Public Safety (RPS) initiative has made the Police Department an undesirable place to work. 

Lewis had initially proposed to fund just eight of IPD’s 15 vacancies for 2023. The acting mayor had determined that funds set aside for the seven other positions would most likely go unspent since the police department has a historically very slow hiring process.

“My goal was to be realistic, to have the ability to move toward a fully staffed police department,” Lewis said. She added “but I am not comfortable tying up that amount of money that could be used for other purposes.”

The amendment originally proposed by IPD was to make funding available for the seven other positions in July 2023. McGonigal moved to make funds available for the seven officers in October 2023, as a compromise. 

McGongigal introduced his altered amendment saying, “Currently, IPD is in crisis. That’s not a word I take lightly. We don’t have enough people, and that makes it more dangerous for the entire community, and more dangerous for our officers.”

“This will be unpopular,” McGongial said before proposing that the $158,530.50 budget increase be covered by removing the full $25,000 of funding for a homeless coordinator position the city will be hiring in 2023 (since Tompkins County is hiring a full time coordinator of its own), and $25,000 (or half of the funding initially set aside by the city) for Black Hands Universal, a nonprofit with the stated mission of connecting youth and young adults with job opportunities. The remainder needed, McGonigal proposed, would be expressed in the tax rate. 

Currently, IPD has 65 authorized positions of which 15 are currently vacant. Additionally, Joly told  the Community Police Board on Wednesday that eight of IPD’s officers are currently out on work related injuries, or on leave for other reasons. He added that there are currently three officers eligible for retirement at IPD, and another three that will become eligible for retirement in 2023. The acting chief said that he’s expecting four officers to retire in 2023. 

In the department Joly said there are 23 officers he can assign across the department’s three patrol shifts, but that the minimum number that the department is supposed to assign is 36, according to the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association’s contract with the City of Ithaca. 

Joly did express some optimism about filling positions at IPD. He said that of the 86 candidates that signed up to take IPD’s most recent civil service exam, 30 of them have also passed the physical fitness tests. IPD does not yet have the list of who showed up to take the civil service exam, and who passed. Joly said he would be given that list by the end of December, and once he has it, he can begin to issue conditional job offers to qualified applicants. 

It takes about a year before a hire has a “positive impact on our staffing” Joly told council. Hired police officers go through a six-month academy training program, and then four months of field training. Joly has stressed that he feels the time to compete for candidates was now, and not later.

“This is a very competitive market, there are less people applying for law enforcement jobs nationwide than there were five years ago,” Joly told the Community Police Board on Wednesday.

McGonigal argued the stakes for not funding the positions would signal that the City of Ithaca does not support its police department and that it could create more friction between Common Council and the department. Acting Chief Joly has been pushing out the message that officers at IPD are being burnt out and emphasizing that, in his view, making progress on many of the goals of Ithaca’s RPS initiatives will be tied to IPD getting new hires through the door.

“Morale is suffering, officers are leaving,” said McGonigal. “Eliminating the seven positions sends a message — not intentionally I don’t think — but it sends a message that perhaps we don’t hear the issues [at IPD]. It has a direct effect on morale. It has a direct effect on recruitment.”

Stating her support for funding the seven positions for part of 2023, Brock said that Ithaca needs to put the messaging out that Ithaca “values our police department. We’re going to fund our police department so that our police officers can be successful. That they won’t be overworked because their shifts are understaffed.”

In her comments, Brown said that she understood the motivations for the police department to fill its vacancies, but she emphasized how she felt the community that demanded the kind of changes coming with Ithaca’s RPS initiative.

“I understand after listening, how that is important. But if we say no to it, we’re gonna get this bad response from who?” said Brown. “We’ve been hemming and hawing with Reimagining Public Safety […] and we’re not worried about what the community feels?”

Alderperson Robert Gearhart said, “I’m hopeful that the commitment to even starting as late as December shows that we are funding positions, and that they’re there when you can hire officers. Right? So that’s the key. And I hope along the way, we also recognize that this is a city and a community that’s committed to Reimagining Public Safety. This is what we’re doing.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn