Dover crime prevention funding approved

DOVER — Members of the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) approved a plan to use bank settlement funds for crime prevention in Dover and Wilmington Wednesday, but not before hours of back-and-forth discussion.

The committee, holding a special meeting while the General Assembly is out of session, heard Attorney General Matt Denn further detail a plan to use $2.1 million to fight crime in the state’s two largest cities, a pitch he first made last month.

The plan JFC members finally approved Wednesday differs slightly from the attorney general’s idea, although the totals are the same: $579,000 for Dover and $1.52 million for Wilmington.

Attorney General Matt Denn

Attorney General Matt Denn

The money comes out of a $36 million pot from mortgage-related settlements with Bank of America and Citigroup, of which $28 million remains after the vote.

Wilmington’s funding comes with strings attached: Follow a series of conditions or potentially have the General Assembly alter the charter to move police oversight from the city to the legislature.

No such terms apply for the capital. For Dover, $275,000 will go to overtime for officers patrolling the city on foot, $170,000 for adding 14 cameras in the downtown area, $106,000 to extend the cadet patrolling program and $29,000 for community events and projects.

In addition, the city will add an already-set-aside $158,000 in revenue and grants, to be used for various priorities.

The funding allows the Dover Police Department to commit more officers to patrols and, city officials hope, prevent crime.

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen, who was at Legislative Hall in the morning and left frustrated after a vote was pushed back, said following the final decision he was excited JFC had allocated money for the capital.

“Our current efforts have been successful but these extra dollars will add,” he said.

About $1.44 million of the money allocated for Wilmington will go to police patrols, with the remaining $75,000 being used to add a crime analyst to work with the Wilmington Police Department.

Wilmington has seen a near-record 25 homicides while Dover has had seven murders this year. Per capita, the cities have been witness to more homicides than Chicago and Philadelphia in 2015, according to Mr. Denn.

Nearly all the discussion Wednesday centered on Wilmington, with lawmakers clearly delineating between the proposal for Dover and the one for Wilmington. JFC quickly concluded the Dover recommendation, put together by Mr. Denn, Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, Mayor Robin Christiansen and police Chief Paul Bernat, needed no changes.

“What the city of Dover prepares is really, really a good proposal, and it’s a proposal that also can be followed very closely and monitored to make sure that it’s done as proposed,” Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna, said. “I would just

Rep. William Carson

Rep. William Carson

like to urge my colleagues when it comes time for a vote that it’s really probably two issues here. You have a city of Wilmington issue and a city of Dover issue. I think that the city of Dover has stepped up to the plate, proposed something that’s very strong and hope it works.”

Committee members discussed the plan for more than an hour in the morning, their frustrations with Wilmington and its police department laid bare.

“They spend money on what they want and they beg for what they need,” opined Rep. J.J. Johnson, D-New Castle.

After being hung up on what conditions to place on the Wilmington money and what steps to take if the funding was not used to the committee’s liking, JFC moved on to other issues.

Lawmakers later returned to the topic, leading to another prolonged conversation over Wilmington. City police Chief Bobby Cummings appeared before JFC, and some of his comments raised lawmakers’ eyebrows.

Whereas Mr. Denn called for money to be used in part to fund police food patrols during the winter, Chief Cummings said the patrols did little to reduce crime, especially in the colder months.

Legislators also grilled Chief Cummings on how many officers were on patrol, noting just three of Dover’s approximately 101 individuals handle deskwork rather than streetwork. In contrast, about 130 of Wilmington’s 320 police officers do not patrol the city.

Despite some confusion and differing opinions, the panel opted to simply provide $1.44 million for general patrols rather than specifying part of it be used for officers walking the streets.

Lawmakers also added “strings” that could cause the city to be stripped of its police power. Officials must supply a breakdown of the Wilmington Police Department to the legislature and work to implement recommendations developed by a public safety panel months earlier.

Should legislators feel Wilmington is not following through, they could introduce a bill to change the city’s charter and transfer police oversight away from the city itself.

The funds will be distributed to the cities through the attorney general’s office, which is currently holding the remaining settlement money. Because the General Assembly already approved the fund the money will be moved to, JFC’s vote does not need full legislative approval.

After seven hours spent in the hearing room discussing settlement money, the Department of Education and Medicaid, lawmakers unanimously approved the money for both cities.

In statements, both Mr. Denn and Gov. Jack Markell thanked the committee and expressed optimism shortly after the vote.

Other items

It was a busy day for lawmakers, one that also saw them discuss Department of Education positions, Medicaid fraud and the current budget picture. Several members of JFC were irked the Education Department opted to continue funding eight Race to the Top positions with money from vacant spots after the budget-writing committee deliberately cut the funding for Race to the Top initiatives in June.

“Although what they did is not illegal, I think that the Department of Education was really, really unfair and absolutely did the wrong thing,” Rep. Carson said.

Legislators debated continuing a program to find Medicaid fraud, waste and abuse, which located $11 million in possible improper payments from a $226 million sample over a three-year period. While some lawmakers sought to move forward to a new model that would utilize a smart card of sorts to instantly track payments and prevent doctor shopping, the committee decided to continue with the current contract for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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