WIll Tampa pay more to address the mental health calls police now handle?

John Dingfelder wants $1 million to fund improvements to 911 responses to mental health calls. His City Council colleagues will take up the matter on Thursday.
Tampa City Councilman John Dingfelder addresses the council members and visitors during the council meeting, Thursday, June 4, 2020 at the Tampa Convention Center.
Tampa City Councilman John Dingfelder addresses the council members and visitors during the council meeting, Thursday, June 4, 2020 at the Tampa Convention Center. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Sept. 8, 2020

TAMPA — For months, protesters and advocates have made the argument that police officers shouldn’t be handling calls involving mental health issues on their own.

City Council member John Dingfelder has been listening.

Last week, at the city’s first public budget hearing, Dingfelder, a citywide member, proposed that the city funnel $1 million to efforts to bolster and, perhaps, supplant police response to people in mental distress.

Dingfelder points to Eugene, Oregon, where the city contracts with mental professionals to either ride along with the police or go out in pairs without police, he said. That system has saved money and reduced violent interactions between police and residents, he said.

“They handle 20 percent of the 911 calls now,” Dingfelder said of the Oregon program.

Mayor Jane Castor didn’t include such funding in her $1.45 billion budget she delivered to council members in early August. And the mayor, elected four years after retiring as police chief, has resisted calls for cuts in the city’s $140 million police department.

In fact, the total costs to police the city are set to rise in October by $13 million if council members approve the Castor budget. Most of that increase is tied to preexisting labor contracts and pension costs, said Dennis Rogero, the city’s chief financial officer.

Black Lives Matter activists and supporters have criticized the budget bump. Council member Bill Carlson asked Castor’s chief of staff John Bennett Thursday if there was room to reallocate any of that police department money.

Bennett indicated doing so would endanger public safety.

“Where do you take services from when you have a police department ... very lean in operating costs and performance? The risks factors start to leak into the neighborhood,” Bennett said.

And reneging on the police union’s three-year $5 million labor contract invited a lawsuit, Bennett said.

His argument seemed to win the day. A majority of council members, including retired police officer Orlando Gudes, said publicly they didn’t support reducing the police department’s budget.

And when council member Luis Viera remarked that the council was unanimous in its feeling that the $1 million for the mental health program shouldn’t come from the police budget, he didn’t get much pushback.

At the suggestion of Charlie Miranda, council members voted to give Castor’s administration, which has been researching possible models, to brief council members about the mental health proposals after Thursday’s Community Redevelopment Area meeting. A final vote on the budget is slated for Sept. 16.

Dingfedler also wanted to hire a city budget analyst for $125,000, which drew a sharp rebuke from Miranda, who said the city had more pressing needs. The motion failed 4-3.

Dingfelder was more successful in getting a unanimous vote to include $135,000 for park restoration in Seminole Heights. His colleague, Joseph Citro, also secured $216,000 in funding for two small community television networks.

Morris Massey of the City Attorney’s Office told members that traditionally, budget tweaks such as Dingfelder and Citro made are codified by amendment in the first meeting of October.

Council members must approve the city’s fiscal plan for 2021 by Sept. 30. The new fiscal year starts the following day.