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MATTOON -- The City Council heard a report Tuesday on an increase in methamphetamine-related crimes in Mattoon and on a staffing shortfall within the police department.

Police Chief Jason Taylor presented this report as part of his request to hire two officers as the city continues to deal with a budget deficit. The council voted 4-1 to hire the two officers following this report and discussion that included a suggestion of holding a sales tax referendum for public safety funding.

Taylor said the Mattoon Police Department is authorized to employ 42-44 officers, had fielded 38 recently, and is now down to 36. He said their staffing level is 14-36 percent below the average for communities of Mattoon's size, 18,300, as recorded by FBI Uniform Crime Reporting and three other national organizations.

The chief said his department's staffing is down as Coles County felony cases have increased from 530 in 2017 to 661 so far this year. Taylor said this increase has been fueled by an influx of inexpensive methamphetamine "ice" from Mexico into the United States, including throughout Illinois.

"The Mexican cartels flooded, absolutely flooded, the market," said East Central Illinois Task Force Inspector Matt McCormick during Taylor's presentation. McCormick said the Mattoon department has been aggressive in pursuing meth-related arrests.

Chief Taylor said his department's meth arrests have increased from 68 in 2017 to 121 so far this year. He said meth has fueled other crimes as users steal money for drugs or act violently. He said this situation has contributed to burglary reports increasing from 99 in 2017 to 143 so far this year.

Taylor said the department's investigations have increased from 626 in 2017 to 782 so far this year, although it still only has four detectives. He said the number of repeat offenders has increased due, in part, to many defendants being quickly released from custody under a new state law regarding no bond being set in certain types of criminal cases.

Under the city's deficit budget, Taylor said the police department has trimmed its budget by a further $50,976. Taylor said he knows that the city has a deficit, but he needs to fill two vacant posts to maintain patrol levels.

"This is why I am asking you for two cops, not because I want them, but because I need them," Taylor said. He noted that four officers are on duty overnight during the week and five during the weekend.

The council voted 4-1 to employ Jose Aceves and Kedrick Houser as replacement probationary patrol officers. Taylor said both officers will be great additions to the department.

Council member Preston Owen cast the "no" vote. Owen told both new officers that he hopes they have long careers in Mattoon. Owen said his vote was based on concerns about the city hiring personnel as it faces a $625,216 deficit in the current budget and an even larger projected deficit in the next budget.

"We have to worry about the budget. We can't spend money we don't have. There is no way to reduce it effectively other than by getting rid of people," Owen said. The city is facing rising police and fire pension costs as it deals with budgets that are 80 percent personnel costs, he said.

Audience members Doug Starwalt and Sheila Monroe asked about holding a referendum on establishing a Mattoon sales tax that would generate funding for the police and fire departments.

Mayor Tim Gover said the council cannot place such a referendum on the ballot, but residents can. City Administrator Kyle Gill said he has mentioned this idea to business leaders. Owen said a 1 percent sales tax could generate $3 million in revenue per year. Council member Sandra Graven cautioned that it is not easy to win approval at the ballot for tax increases.

In other matters, the council hired Huff & Huff of Oak Brook for $30,547 to conduct soil sampling and testing for the planned paving of the recreation trail between Charleston and Mattoon and extension of the trail to downtown Mattoon. Council member Rick Hall said this soil work will be paid for with capital project funding that cannot be used for personnel expenses.

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