When thousands of people descended upon downtown Belleville for Art on the Square in May, the crowd was being monitored by more than just police officers on the street.
Shortly before the festival, the police department installed a wireless system of surveillance cameras targeting the Public Square.
On Monday night, the City Council voted unanimously to seek a federal grant to help pay for an expansion of the surveillance camera program all along the downtown Main Street business corridor.
The police department has a surveillance camera that is on a street light in front of the courthouse. Also, there are two temporary ones on a wall of the former Meredith Memorial Home on the square at 16 S. Illinois St.
Mayor Mark Eckert said the cameras are particularly useful during festivals.
“When you have large crowds of people you’re trying to watch or be responsible for, that’s one of the reasons,” Eckert said of the cameras. “And the other thing is we have a lot of city property downtown, such as the fountain and all those memorial tablets.”
Eckert said officers can use the cameras as a tool to prevent crime or solve a crime. Also, he said if the cameras had been in place for last year’s bicentennial celebration when The Beach Boys played downtown, the police could have used the cameras to help find a child who was lost for a short time.
Police department dispatchers and administrators monitor the cameras.
Capt. Don Sax sent Eckert a letter explaining how the city could obtain a portion of a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The proposed allocation for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant for St. Clair County is $125,304.
The city of East St. Louis would be eligible for $79,113, the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department’s share would be $30,000 and Belleville’s would be $16,192, according to Sax.
“The police department would propose the funds be used to purchase additional cameras and equipment for the expansion of the ‘downtown camera’ project,” Sax wrote. “The total cost for this project is estimated to be approximately $65,000 and will be done in phases as funding becomes available to the police department.”
After a public hearing was held Monday night, aldermen approved a motion to direct staff to continue seeking the grant.
During the public hearing, Joy Schreiber, a Belleville Township trustee, asked if this equipment was portable so that it could be taken to “hot spots.” Sax said this system is not portable but as technology improves that could be a possibility.
Ward 3 Alderman Kent Randle asked Sax how many cameras are envisioned for downtown. The captain said the department hopes to install a camera on every other block, with six to eight on East Main Street and two or three on West Main Street.
Ward 8 Alderman Roger Wigginton wanted to know if the program could be expanded to other parts of the city and Eckert said he thought that was a possibility.
In other business, alderman voted 13-1 to buy eight police SUVs from Tri Ford of Highland for $215,223. The city will still need to spend about $23,000 on each vehicle to have equipment installed.
Ward 2 Alderman Mike Buettner cast the lone “no” vote. He noted that Eckert has warned the state could cut $2.2 million in funding to the city.
“I believe at this time we should be looking for ways to reduce spending so that we can save jobs in the future. I believe this type of expenditure is one we could postpone for a while and revisit it once we find out what the effects Springfield’s budget will be on the city’s finances,” Buettner said.
“I do not want to spend $400,000 now and 60 days from now wish we had the money we spent on these vehicles when we may be looking at laying off police officers.”
The aldermen also voted 13-1 to defeat Buettner’s motion to send the vehicle purchase proposal back to the Finance Committee.
Eckert said the cost of maintenance of older police vehicles with up to 100,000 miles on them will only increase.
“I think it will end up costing us more if we prolong ordering these cars,” Eckert said.
Also on Monday, Eckert said the issue of whether Oktoberfest organizers could expand their event another block on East Main Street from High Street to Jackson Street was mistakenly left off the agenda. That discussion and vote will now be July 6.
Some downtown business owners told aldermen on June 1 that street closures hurt their businesses. Other business owners have said they welcome the expansion of street festivals.