Denver City Council proposes more than a half-dozen changes to Mayor Hancock’s budget 

Colorado Politics

By Alayna Alvarez

Denver City Council President Stacie Gilmore delivered a letter to Mayor Michael Hancock at noon Friday requesting seven changes to his proposed $2.1 billion budget for next year, a time in which the city must close a budget shortfall estimated at $190 million, thanks to the pandemic.

“Denver City Council began to prepare for the 2021 budget process in July of this year. A year that we have faced a global pandemic, civil rights movement, and economic uncertainty,” Gilmore said in a statement. ‘While our city’s general fund faces difficult shortfalls, we as City Council have carried forward the voices and values of equity for our constituents into the budget hearings and our 2021 budget requests.”

Of the council’s appeals, the most robust is to triple the funding for the city’s Support Team Assisted Response, or STAR program, which sends some low-level 911 calls to mental health professionals instead of police.

Hancock had allocated $1 million in 2021 to expand the pilot program, which was previously funded by a grant from the Caring for Denver Foundation. The mayor also planned to transfer STAR from the police department’s oversight and into 911 operations.

But the 13-member council, whose ears have been flooded with cries to defund the police for months, wants $3 million for a “phased expansion” of STAR teams and vehicles to cover each of the city’s six police districts before the end of next year. The council also requested that the program be moved out of 911 operations and placed under the city’s health department.

The council suggested the funds be drawn from the Denver Police Department’s budget or the Fair Elections Fund, which was passed by Denver voters in 2018 and provides public matching funds to candidates for municipal offices.

“This request advances equity through providing non-police resources to reframe safety in a public health, evidence-based and anti-racist approach,” the council’s four-page letter reads to the mayor.

The council set budget priorities in July during their annual retreat, where they agreed to use the city’s stretched resources to address emergencies and the “intense desire” for substantive change with the goal of rebuilding Denver’s economy and communities more equitably than before.

Gilmore and President Pro Tem Jamie Torres, who were unanimously elected to lead the council in July, said before budget hearings began that they were eager for change and the opportunity to apply a “critical equity lens” to the budget to better serve those “who have long gone overlooked and under-consulted.”

The Denver City Council conducted 19 budget hearings with multiple city agencies, some of whom they heard from directly for the first time, including the Office of Children’s Affairs, the Office of the Independent Monitor, and Human Rights and Community Partnership.

Those meetings helped inform the other six changes the council is requesting, such as $220,000 to reinstate funding for five transportation management associations, which the body said have been “an invaluable partner to Denver for more than two decades,” and that eliminating their funding is “short-sighted and will impede our mobility, climate and equity goals.”

The funding for the TMAs is suggested to come from the transportation department’s Office of Business and Community Engagement.

The council is also asking for $391,800 to establish a rental registration and licensure program within the Department of Excise and License, as well as the staff and outreach and education support needed to set the program up successfully. The initiative would help the city “collect city rental property data, find property owners in case of emergencies or code violations, and ensure safe and healthy rentals are maintained in Denver,” the council wrote in its letter to Hancock.

The council suggested support for the rental registration program be drawn from the Fair Elections Fund or the budgets of either the police or safety departments.

Another $300,000 is requested to be added either to Denver Public Library or the Office of Children’s Affairs to support digital inclusion.

“Digital inclusion is a significant issue among low-income and BIPOC communities and our ability to reach households without computers or internet severely impairs our ability to connect effectively,” the council wrote.

The funds should be drawn from the Fair Elections Fund, the police or transportation department, the council recommends.

The Denver City Council is also advocating for $71,700 for the Citizen Oversight Board, which acts as a watchdog for the Office of the Independent Monitor, the oversight agency for the police and sheriff departments.

The funding will convert a part-time, on-call position to a full-time position to “better support the increased size of the Citizen Oversight Board and to help the COB in meeting its obligations to receive, analyze and make recommendations based on community input regarding public safety agencies in Denver — the demands of which are greater than ever.”

The council suggested drawing funds from the Department of Public Safety budget to support this request.

Additionally, the council is asking for $50,000 for the Office on Aging Expansion, which will “ensure the continued work of this office especially in vulnerable neighborhoods that cannot access resources and supports at downtown locations.”

The legislative body recommended pulling dollars from the Fair Elections Fund or police department budget to support their request.

The last ask of the council’s, the only one supported by a majority but not a super majority, is $1 million for legal support for eviction defense.

“The extreme amount of evictions that we are facing are a major issue to address. Predatory and large rental/management companies will permanently harm the most vulnerable and exacerbate our homelessness crisis,” the council warned. “If we do not get in front of this, we will have larger numbers of people on the streets with no real pathway to housing.”

The funding would be funneled into either the Human Rights and Community Partnerships or the City Attorney’s Office, the council advised. The suggested funding source would come from the City Attorney’s Office.

Finally, the council made two other requests without assigned monetary values.

The first is that the Hancock administration ensure the final 2021 budget “definitively funds and explicitly references” that all park resources be adequate to permanently open park restrooms and provide portable restroom facilities in parks without permanent facilities.

“Because the science is clear that COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, even if mitigated to some unknown degree by a vaccine, we recommend conservatively assuming that COVID-19 cleaning standards would be required in 2021 when planning for these expenses,” the council’s letter reads.

A Denver City Council supermajority also asked Hancock to transfer youth violence prevention programs from the Department of Public Safety to the Office of Children’s Affairs “to mitigate the negative, unintended consequences of police interaction with citizens who require different services than police are able to provide,” the council wrote.

“City Council’s recommendations are directly rooted in the voices of our neighborhoods and in our core responsibility to ensure essential services are delivered while elevating the needs of our most vulnerable communities,” Torres said in a statement.

The mayor will review the council’s requests and submit his updated proposed budget to council on or before Oct. 19. Once the budget is submitted to council, a public hearing will be held, which is currently scheduled for Oct. 26.

On Nov. 2, the council will vote to amend the budget and will need seven votes to pass an amendment. The mayor can reject an amendment, but that rejection can be overridden by the council with nine votes.

The entire process must be completed by Nov. 9.