Budget balancing act

Hard trade-offs await in future years, council members say

City Hall. File photo

In passing the 2020 budget, council members voted to scrutinize Minneapolis Police Department staffing and the 911 priority call system. 

“I think we are investing too much money in incarceration-based policing and not enough money in community-based safety,” said Council President Lisa Bender (Ward 10). “I think the police department needs a complete overhaul of its budget.”

Analysis underway involves sweeping questions about policing: Should squads hold one or two officers? Should a civilian, rather than a sworn officer, take down reports of theft? Should MPD roles fold into the larger city enterprise in areas like communications, IT, human resources and records? Should emergency medical technicians respond to overdose calls instead of police?

The city’s $1.5 billion budget (excluding independent boards) is 1.9% smaller than the budget adopted in 2019, but growing operating expenses are driving a 7% increase in the property tax levy, according to city staff. The levy equates to an additional $109 for an average home with a median value of $264,500. Utility rates at a typical home will increase by $51 per year. Apartment property taxes will increase 13.5% (assuming market value increases by 12.8%).

Among the major budget changes:

— The 2020 budget includes $31 million for affordable housing, following last year’s $40 million investment. The city approved over three times more affordable housing than normal last year, Council Member Steve Fletcher (Ward 3) said.

— The city will launch “cultural districts” on corridors like Franklin Avenue and 38th Street, modeled after districts like Chinatown in New York and Hyde Park in Chicago. The concept includes funds for lighting, upkeep and safety ($1.35 million), a fund to support businesses by people of color ($2 million) and money for arts and events ($100,000), among other measures.

— During the seven days before the presidential election, the city will staff three new early voting centers, allocating $4 million for election events in 2020.

— A program that tackles gang or “group” violence will expand from North Minneapolis to South Minneapolis ($300,000). Since the pilot launched in May 2017, the city reports that Northside nonfatal shootings among “group” members dropped in the warmer months of 2017 and 2018.

— Highlighting the “chronically oversubscribed” Green Cost Share program, which offers matching funds for solar and other green projects, the council added $350,000 to sustainability work. Council Member Jeremy Schroeder (Ward 11) said they ran out of money for Green Cost Share in February last year and already have 100-plus applications in 2020. Past projects include LED lighting for Fig + Farro and the Uptown YWCA, eco-friendly paint drying equipment at Dunwoody Automotive and Oscar Auto Body, a solar array at Industrial Steel Fabricators in Windom, and low-flow faucet aerators and shower heads at Minneapolis College of Art and Design student housing.

Finding funding

The extra sustainability funding came from an unspent $350,000 in the first-year rollout of the “Stable Homes, Stable Schools” initiative, which houses youth and their families facing homelessness. City officials voted to replenish that funding in the 2021 budget, and said the program’s $3 million budget for 2020 would be sufficient.

“If I didn’t think that climate change and our response wasn’t critically important, I wouldn’t have gone to this funding source,” said Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2), adding that he’s also deeply committed to the Stable Homes program. “I know it’s going to be tough making budget decisions moving forward, but … those are two things I’m not unclear on at all, that I’ll be fighting for in future budgets.”

“This decision is tough right now, let alone next year,” Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins (Ward 8) said.

Mayor Jacob Frey said the Stable Homes program is surpassing expectations. Since the school year started in September, Frey said, the program is ending or preventing homelessness for 415 children in 137 families, with more families in the pipeline.

Throughout the budget drafting process, a few themes emerged in emails and testimony from constituents. Many asked for a transgender equity staff person ($90,000 was added), many asked for support services for the elderly ($60,000 was added) and many asked that a utility company fee fully fund climate work ($350,000 was added).

Many others weighed in on policing, with varied opinions.

Jake Reber wrote that residents “desperately need additional police” in the Diamond Lake neighborhood, and the 911 response is too long.

Chelsea Deklotz said she interacts with the homeless during her commute to work in Uptown.

“Officers are not trained to handle mental health crises and cannot be expected to add this full-time job to their already full-time job. Police officers are not social workers,” Deklotz wrote.

Some carried signs into the council chambers stating: “Fund our communities, not cops.”

Policing priorities

The council passed a budget increase of $8.3 million for police, with some MPD funds redirected to violence prevention work. The council unanimously compromised to pay for a larger police recruitment class rather than hire 14 new investigators, beat officers and traffic cops. (The chief can still direct recruits to those areas.)

“This is a pretty big compromise, and compromise, as I see it, is the only way to go,”  said Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13). “Training is the root of everything we do with public safety, and it is an extremely appropriate place to always invest.”

After a year of conversation, Fletcher said it’s noteworthy that elected officials are now unanimous in supporting the new Office of Violence Prevention to invest beyond policing. Violence prevention efforts total $2.7 million next year, according to the city.

“This is very clearly, 14-0, the mayor and the council moving together, this is where we are going,” Fletcher said.

Late in the budget process, council members Jeremiah Ellison (Ward 5), Gordon and Bender proposed diverting more MPD money to violence prevention. But the council voted 10-3 to keep a large recruitment class.

“This is a tough vote,” Jenkins said. “I have been in conversation with the chief, and while this may be one of our largest recruit classes, it’s also one of our most diverse recruit classes ever.”

The number of active officers is often well below the authorized 888, according to city staff, and the time it takes to hire and train new police causes big swings in staffing when officers leave or retire.

“When I first started on the City Council in 1998, there were about 50,000 less people in the city and more officers. That’s something to think about,” Council Member Lisa Goodman (Ward 7) said in a budget discussion last fall.

Bender said the police department’s $180 million budget has grown by $35 million since she took office in 2013, adding pension funds and body cameras. She said the public safety budget is squeezing the money available for other priorities like climate change, labor standards and the opioid crisis. With that level of funding, she said, it’s appropriate to give policing a close look, similar to asking Public Works to change the way it builds streets in line with city values.

A 911/MPD workgroup recently suggested reconfiguring the priority call system, closely tracking mental health calls to find alternative responses. Among the top MPD 911 calls are welfare checks and emotionally disturbed persons, and the group said it might be possible to send more mental health professionals on low-risk calls. The group also recommended sending theft reports to 311, or sending parking complaints to traffic control. The council authorized $200,000 to further study 911 and police staffing.

The council rejected a budget proposal to hire new officers to resurrect a traffic unit that dissolved in 2013. The Northside sees a disproportionate number of fatal crashes, Council Member Phillipe Cunningham (Ward 4) said, but he worried that traffic enforcement focused on the Northside could exacerbate racial disparities. 

“We know from the experience in our city [and] across the country, it’s very difficult to police your way out of traffic safety problems when your roads are designed for speeding,” Bender said in a budget discussion last fall.

Instead, the council approved detailed directions to convene a workgroup that tracks crash data and recommends how to balance race equity with enforcement aimed at ending traffic deaths.

Police said the domestic assault unit sees the largest volume of incoming cases, and the council turned down a request to hire two new domestic violence investigators. The council redirected another $50,000 that would have purchased an MPD vehicle to fund an Intimate Partner Violence Intervention initiative. New funding will also go to the city attorney’s office to give families with low-level conflicts an alternative contact aside from 911.

“Domestic violence is an intergenerational issue. We know that it’s the No. 1 reason for 911 calls, which means that we have a lot of kids around our entire city who are being exposed to violence in the home, and that trauma impacts them for the rest of their lives,” Cunningham said.

The budget also dedicates funding for crime-reducing strategies in Ventura Village and Phillips West, with $20,000 going to Stevens Square. Council Member Abdi Warsame (Ward 6) said the money gives back to neighborhoods in his ward, which hosted the homeless encampment last year.

The council approved another new pilot with funding to be determined that takes inspiration from Seattle’s approach to the war on drugs, which views arrest as a last resort. Called “LEAD” in Seattle, people can opt for long-term case management instead of an arrest. Council Member Alondra Cano (Ward 9) said the approach could also apply to prostitution, an issue where Minneapolis has tried many different tactics with limited success: undercover stings that relied on officers to pose as sex workers, street outreach workers handing out toothbrushes and condoms and a pre-charge diversion program that found little interest among people facing arrest.

Bender said she’s concerned the council is setting itself up for difficulty in next year’s budget. Even renters, who don’t directly see property tax statements, are talking about tax increases, she said.

“As we promise funding for so many different things in the future … at some point we’re going to need to make those difficult decisions between trade-offs,” Bender said.

 

Additional budget changes

— Investment in opioid crisis response, including safe disposal of syringes and a new hospital bedside intervention for overdose survivors ($500,000)

— Expanded service for sidewalk snow and ice corner clearing and greening on city right-of-way ($400,000)

— Raises for council office staff ($250,000)

— Study of rent control or “rent stabilization” ($125,000)

— Study of potential reduction in speed limits and automated enforcement of speeding and red light-running (additional $100,000 allocated)

— Additional MPD “community navigator” to work with people experiencing homelessness ($93,000). During budget discussions, city officials praised the work of Lt. Grant Snyder, a liaison to the homeless working along the Greenway and in Uptown.

— Resources to help refinance payday loans at zero interest ($75,000)

— An additional labor standards investigator to enforce the city’s wage theft ordinance ($69,000)

— Funding for a new public market called Africa Village in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, which Warsame seeks as a co-op alternative to Karmel Mall ($50,000)

— New children’s savings account program ($50,000)

— All city contributions to public housing high rises will now require installation of fire sprinklers. Warsame pushed for the change, saying that seniors and people with disabilities could not escape the recent high-rise fire in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood.