On Monday, November 4, Denver City Council voted down eight amendments that Candi CdeBaca had proposed to the city's 2020 budget. The freshman councilwoman, who has been an ardent critic of the process by which the budget is approved, framed her efforts to pass amendments through council as a “showdown.” Though last night didn't go her way, CdeBaca hopes to start a larger effort to reform the city’s budget process.
Few councilmembers had issues with the amendments CdeBaca was proposing, and some were even supported by Chris Hinds, Debbie Ortega, Amanda Sawyer and Robin Kniech. However, many members said they did not want to make cuts to other agencies, especially without knowing the impacts of the cuts.
Six amendments were suggestions CdeBaca had originally included in an informal letter that city council writes to the mayor before sending his office a formal budget-approval letter. She wanted to increase funding for porta-potties, trash cans and lockers for homeless residents; expand the business opportunity fund for small-business owners impacted by the I-70 expansion; and add additional funding to the Office of Climate Action so that Denver would be the first city in the U.S. to subsidize solar panels on low-income homeowners’ roofs. CdeBaca also pushed to fully fund an amendment that Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore had originally introduced to increase the small budget of the Office of Aging by over 60 percent.
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The amendments totaled $830,000, or roughly .05 percent of Mayor Michael Hancock’s $1.49 billion general fund. CdeBaca tacked on another amendment at the last minute, proposing to take $2 million out of the Department of Public Safety’s administrative budget toward a new building for the community corrections program. Michael Sapp, a representative from the Community Corrections program, recommended against the proposal, saying that his office was already discussing purchasing a building and taking $2 million out of Public Safety's administrative budget.
Hancock has approved several requests for additional funding that city council sent in its original letter, including $125,000 to provide supportive services to tiny home villages, bolstering the the Office of Aging's budget, an additional $730,000 to increasing Vision Zero funds to prevent traffic fatalities, $500,000 to improve safe routes to school, and an additional $1 million toward hotel vouchers for the homeless.
CdeBaca suggested pulling money from the Department of Public Works' administrative budget to fund the homelessness services she proposed, as well as aggressively defunding the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative. CdeBaca says the pilot program in her district that is supposed to coordinate redevelopment projects in Globeville, Elyria and Swansea is a "failed initiative."
"I think that those dollars could be flowing directly to the community through the existing agencies," she says. "We don’t need to have a separate agency distributing dollars."
CdeBaca previously alleged that the entire budget is skewed toward administrative bloating, pointing out that nearly all mayoral appointees and top city officials pull in salaries over $100,000. Though the full salaries of every employee aren't detailed, the budget mentions that a single marketing and communications specialist makes $148,000.
In a scathing critique posted to social media, CdeBaca wrote, "It honestly blows my mind to see the level of waste, inequity, obliviousness, lack of strategy and overall lack of leadership. Most organizations (government, private and nonprofit) that I have been a part of budgeted in a much more coherent fashion."
At Monday's meeting, some other councilmembers indicated that they, too, were disappointed with the budget process.
"We are struggling over a couple hundred thousand dollars in a billion-dollar budget. That’s ridiculous," Councilwoman Sawyer said, explaining why she was voting down proposals she supported because she didn't feel comfortable defunding the North Denver Cornerstone Collaborative without a more robust discussion of what it was doing. "This is a failure of our system."
Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval echoed her sentiment. "I feel guilty voting no on everything that I absolutely support and I ran on," she said. "I’m not voting no against [these amendments]; I’m just voting no against this process."
Councilmembers don't see the budget until September, when it is fully drafted. By that time, major decisions on how to allocate the city's dollars have already been made. Councilmembers go through a packed week of presentations from all of the city's agencies, but don't necessarily go through their budgets line by line to learn exactly how money is being spent.
"It’s really disappointing that we’re trying to scratch for crumbs, especially when we’re looking for our seniors and looking at our most vulnerable," Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore said.
CdeBaca argued that council shouldn't be held responsible for the "poor-quality" information they received from the mayor's office. "Budgeting is about hard choices and priorities.... To continue to say that we can’t pull from X budget or Y budget because we don’t know the impact.... What we do know is the impact if we don’t."
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In response to CdeBaca's previous critiques of the process, Chief Financial Officer Brendan Hanlon wrote in an email to Westword, “The City is committed to transparency and collaboration with the public and our partners. We’re always looking for ways to improve our approach and continue to implement best practices, including feedback from council members. Agencies and staff spent months putting together analysis, documents and presentations to deliver comprehensive information about the 2020 budget, and I’d like to thank them for all their hard work.”
To address the problems she believes permeate the process, CdeBaca is planning to start a Budget Reform Committee in early 2020. She'd like to see a requirement that agencies incorporate results from city audits in their budgets, as well as mandatory inclusion of all department salary information and detailed programmatic spending. More participation and transparency earlier in the process would give council more ability to influence the budget, CdeBaca says.
"We are a separate branch of government with virtually no impact or ability to influence the budget in a meaningful way.... There’s almost no bar for accountability, and I think the public is bewildered by that," she explains. "We’re at the height of our development and generating revenue, and all people can say is, 'Where does it go?'"
Because no amendments were included to the budget, city council will vote to approve it as is before the end of November.