City Council and Mayor Danene Sorace got an earful from members of the public at council’s Tuesday evening meeting.
No fewer than 18 people — an unusually high number — spoke out during the meeting’s two public comment periods. They touched on topics including the disbandment of the mounted police unit, the traffic calming features installed on South Ann Street and overnight bathroom facilities for the homeless population downtown.
“People need to use the bathroom. It’s a human thing,” said Dave Costarella, a grassroots advocate who has been campaigning for toilets to be placed at or near Binns Park.
He was joined Tuesday by half a dozen supporters, including Dr. Jared Nissley, a doctor who leads Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s street medicine initiative.
Many members of Lancaster’s street population have severe physical disabilities, making even short walks onerous, Nissley said. In the absence of a convenient option, individuals are relieving themselves in alleyways and corners, he said.
As of Tuesday evening, city officials said they did not have a suitable location for a portable toilet downtown. Less than 24 hours later, however, a site opened up, thanks to the relocation of the Lancaster County Food Hub’s shelter to the former Benjamin Roberts furniture store on North Prince Street.
Other speakers renewed complaints previously heard by City Council regarding two recent city decisions: The disbandment of the mounted police unit; and the installation of bollards and pavement markings at the intersection of South Ann Street and East End Avenue as part of Lancaster’s “Vision Zero” traffic safety initiative.
Lauren Pearson made an impassioned plea on behalf of the mounted unit, saying it enhances police morale and “touches people’s lives more than you will ever know,” potentially to the point of inspiring young people to become police officers themselves. Michelle Lagrassa noted the unit’s direct costs are underwritten by donations to the Lancaster City Police Foundation, and challenged the decision to dismantle a program that’s “ultimately free to our community.”
The city still incurs costs, Mayor Sorace said: Officers and other staff are paid for the time they spend caring for and transporting the horses, which is significant.
That said, the main issue is deployment efficiency, she and police Chief Richard Mendez said: The logistics of mounting, dismounting and securing a horse dramatically diminishes officers’ ability to respond to calls.
The department’s data shows it clearly, Mendez said. Some patrol officers exceed 1,000 calls a year, versus just 22 for one of the mounted officers.
Ultimately, Mendez said, what he hears at community meetings aren’t calls for more mounted police, but pleas for more officers on neighborhood streets and on bikes. “That’s what it comes down to,” he said.
Robert Witmer said the city should reconsider the other measure announced along with the mounted unit’s disbandment: The closure of Fire Station 6 at 843 Fremont St.
It’s “a haul” to reach parts of the southwest from the city’s recently rebuilt fire stations on East and West King streets, he said: “I’d like to see it kept open.”
The Fire Bureau says it would take more than $6 million to bring Fire Station 6, which is small and more than six decades old, into line with modern safety standards.
South Ann Street
As for South Ann Street, LaVina Johnson, chair of South Ann Concerned Neighbors’ public safety community, reiterated the group’s view that the bollards at the East End Avenue intersection should be removed and a stop sign installed at the intersection with Green Street just to the south. Tene Darby blamed bollards for a recent crash at North Ann and East Chestnut streets, saying they caused a driver to veer into oncoming traffic.
Afterward, city Public Works Director Stephen Campbell told One United Lancaster his department would continue meeting with neighbors and reviewing the installation. The bollards could be relocated or their dimensions adjusted, he said, but those decisions have to be based on data and validated safety practices. His department, he said, will not be pressured into making changes based solely on public opinion.
Residents had hoped to bring their concerns to the Traffic Commission at its meeting Tuesday afternoon, but the meeting was canceled because it had not been properly advertised as required by law.
That’s reflects a broader problem, Gail Groves Scott told City Council: The city’s many boards, commissions and authorities struggle to post timely agendas and thorough minutes. She suggested they need more administrative support and better orientation on their duties under state transparency laws.
Speaking after the second comment period closed, Mayor Sorace invited City Council to consider the 2024 budget she had presented earlier that evening in light of the complaints and concerns they had just heard.
“We have heard tonight the demands from the community,” she said. “They are many, and they are costly.”
People don’t want their taxes raised, the mayor said, but they want robust city services. That necessitates weighing tradeoffs: Should budget dollars go to staffing fire stations or building new ones? To supporting police staffing that optimizes response capability, or maintaining a mounted unit?
“These are the questions that are before us,” Sorace said. “They are hard questions. They are why we got elected.”
City Council normally holds a committee meeting each to review upcoming legislation, followed by one to two regular meetings. Committee meetings have no public comment periods; regular meetings have two: One toward the start for people who sign up in advance, and one toward the end open to anyone in attendance.