With its financial picture brightening, Palo Alto is looking to bring back a school-resource officer position that was slashed several years ago as part of the City Council's broad budget-balancing effort.
The City Council Finance Committee, which on Thursday concluded its weeks-long discussion of the fiscal year 2014 budget, decided to restore the second school-resource officer if the Palo Alto Unified School district agrees to share the cost of the position. The Palo Alto Police Department estimated that the total compensation for the officer would be about $165,000.
City staff plans to reach out to the school district in the coming days about the potential to share costs for the second officer and return to the City Council with information in early June. The city and the school district currently share costs for the sole remaining school-resource officer, who splits time between the two high-schools.
Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd was the committee's most emphatic proponent of restoring the second officer position. She argued on Thursday that it's time for the city to return to "normalcy" and restore the tradition of having a resource officer at each school. At an earlier meeting, police Capt. Ron Watson lauded the position's importance in both deterring and solving crime, both inside the schools and in the greater community.
"The more well known we are in the schools, the more information comes our way, and it helps us with everything that goes on in the community," Watson told the Finance Committee on May 16.
Shepherd's three committee colleagues Chair Pat Burt, Marc Berman and Greg Schmid agreed that the position is a valuable one and well worth restoring, provided the school district agrees. Committee Chair Pat Burt agreed that a school-resource officer is a position that performs "a really important function for the schools." But both he and City Manager James Keene said the decision will be contingent on the school district's participation. Keene said he hopes the school district will "step up" and reach the same conclusion as the council about the value of the school-resource officers.
"I think it's an important litmus test if the school agrees that the position is needed," Keene said.
The council agreed to cut the school-resource-officer position during the "Great Recession" days of 2009, the first of several years in which the city wrestled with gaping budget deficits by making cuts throughout City Hall. That year, the Police Department lost one of its two school-resource officers, a records specialist and a volunteer coordinator.
This year, the budget outlook is drastically different. With tax revenues on the rise, the city had no problem balancing its books and increasing spending on street repairs, police officers and technological initiatives. In addition to possibly getting back the second school-resource officer, the Police Department will also see seven previously frozen position -- including a three-officer traffic-enforcement team -- return to action. Even after budgeting for half of the school-resource officer's salary and making a series of other small adjustments, the budget that the Finance Committee approved Thursday includes a surplus of about $33,000.
Shepherd suggested that if the school district declines to help pay for the second school-resource officer, the topic should return to the council for consideration of other action. If restored, the position should remain permanent to the extent possible, Shepherd said.
"I hope it's not an on-again, off-again position that we have with schools," Shepherd said. "That is disruptive and not even worth putting in place if we're not going to try to sustain the position."
The City Council is scheduled to consider and possibly approve the budget on June 3.