STOW: Voters might be asked to decide if they want to hike the city’s income tax from 2 percent to 2.25 percent to fund putting police officers in the schools.
In a presentation to Stow City Council on Thursday night, a committee of city and school officials said a quarter-percent hike earmarked for law enforcement would raise about $1.7 million a year. While it is undecided how that money would be spent, it could pay for about nine additional police officers and support staff as well as vehicles and equipment.
City Council will be presented with potential ballot language at a meeting next month. If approved, an issue could be on the Nov. 5 ballot.
After the presentation, council members said they would be sure to have at least two and possibly more public meetings on the topic before making a decision. The ballot filing deadline is in August.
The committee — a task force put together by Mayor Sara Drew — argued that school safety and community safety are not exclusive of each other.
And while the subject of school security has been on many minds because of recent school shootings, there is a more common and daily need for “school resource officers,” Drew said.
The point is not to put an armed guard at the door of every school, Drew said. Having officers in the buildings and among the student population can help address issues from substance abuse to domestic violence.
Because officers were temporarily placed in two Stow schools after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December, the city has already had time to see the benefits, Stow Police Chief Lou Dirker said.
He noted that two Stow-Munroe Falls High School students were arrested this week in connection with a shooting and robbery last month, a student was found with a “hit list,” and that there have been recent cases involving children being removed from homes where meth is being manufactured.
In those cases, the crime did not take place on school property, but having an officer at the school helped aid the investigation, he said.
“The schools don’t operate in a vacuum,” Dirker said. “They are a microcosm of our society.”
Drew said it’s not possible to police the schools with the city’s existing force of 38 sworn officers.
“We do not have the staffing levels to do it,” she said. “If we diverted a significant portion to the schools, we would irrevocably damage our community policing efforts, and that’s not acceptable.”
Since December, officers have had been voluntarily filling extra paid shifts at the high school and middle school, but that isn’t sustainable, she said.
“Our officers can’t commit to working that many hours and shifts,” she said. “Fatigue is an issue.”
Also, neither the city nor the schools can afford a prolonged presence on their current budgets. And in the end, Drew said, security is the city’s responsibility, not the school district’s.
The officers that an income tax increase would bring in would be available to work in the community as well as the schools, especially in the summer, on weekends and in emergencies, Drew said.
Some residents won’t even see their tax rate increase, Drew said. Residents who work in Akron, Twinsburg, and some other area communities are already paying the higher rate of those cities. But if Stow has a 2.25 percent rate, the city can capture the extra quarter-percent currently going to those communities.
The task force also preferred an income tax issue to a property tax option because senior citizens on fixed incomes and people living on things like disability pensions will not be affected.
People who live outside of Stow and work in the city would see the quarter-percent increase. People who live in Stow but work in a community with a 2 percent tax rate would also have to pay the increase.
“Ultimately, it is up to the voters of this community,” Drew said. “It’s not a school issue. It’s a community issue that involves the schools.”
The task force has been meeting since January, has held several public meetings and has surveyed residents. It has also completed building assessments, interviewed teachers and done a financial analysis for the schools and the city.
Drew also noted that the school district is shared with the neighboring city of Munroe Falls. It would be up to that city whether or not to participate in the school resource officer program, she said.
But seven of the nine schools in the district are located in the city of Stow, and Stow children attend the two schools that are in Munroe Falls.