Denver Restoring DMV, Rec Center Hours With New Migrant Budget | Westword

New Migrant Budget Restores DMV and Rec Center Hours, Cuts Migrant Services

"We think we finally cracked the code on how to help people."
Mayor Mike Johnston announced a new $90 million migrant budget on Wednesday, April 10. It would offer fewer service to migrants and make internal city cuts to make the new budget work.
Mayor Mike Johnston announced a new $90 million migrant budget on Wednesday, April 10. It would offer fewer service to migrants and make internal city cuts to make the new budget work. Bennito L. Kelty

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With a new $90 million budget for migrant support this year, the City of Denver will bring back city services that were cut in early February while reducing those offered to migrants.

During a press conference on Wednesday, April 10, Mayor Mike Johnston promised that city-run recreation centers would return to normal hours and programming before the summer, DMV hours would soon return to normal, and none of the city's 1,300 employees would suffer layoffs, furloughs or pay cuts as a result of migrant service funding.

DMV and Parks & Recreation hours and services were cut in early February to help with the projected $180 million cost of housing, feeding and transporting migrants. The city whittled that down to $120 million by closing four migrant shelters, and the city has since closed two more

The city is now shifting its migrant strategy from emergency action to a long-term, sustainable response that will offer migrants help with their asylum applications, six months in an apartment and job training, according to the mayor. At the same time, the city will stop offering non-congregate shelter space and shorten the amount of time migrants can stay in shelters.

That new strategy will cost $89.9 million, according to Johnston, who said he can account for where all the funding and budget cuts are coming from.

Instead of carving into city services that Denver residents use every day — like those offered at their nearby DMV or recreation center — the mayor is making "internal cost-saving measures" to scrape up $45.9 million. The mayor's administration has already come up with the remaining $44 million, he said, mostly thanks to a review of city coffers and some federal support. The internal cuts needed to come up with $45.9 million still have to be approved by Denver City Council, however.

New Budget Cuts

If residents get to enjoy the return of Parks & Recreation summer programs, normal DMV and rec center hours and even a few new spring flowers thanks to volunteers, City of Denver employees will see some changes.

The Department of Finance worked for three months to identify internal savings and "prioritized options with little to no impact on city employees and the public services," according to the mayor's office.

Out of the near-$90 million that Johnston's office is proposing for migrant support this year, about half of it will come from city agency budgets and go into the Border Crisis Special Revenue Fund, which is the money set aside to deal with the migrant crisis in Denver, according to city finance department spokesperson Laura Swartz.

Most of the $45.9 million Johnston has set his sights on would come from asking city departments and agencies — except independently elected ones like the Denver Clerk and Recorder, Denver Auditor and Denver City Council — to delay new hires, cancel unused workplace subscriptions and hold off on new purchases.

About $20 million of that is coming from "salary savings," Swartz says. The city has already been staggering hiring, or delaying start dates for new hires, for 160 "difficult-to-hire positions," since the beginning of 2024, she notes, and even though job postings will continue to pop up here and there, hires will be staggered throughout the year.

The Denver Police Department would have to wait until next year to get new furniture because of the cuts. New police recruits will graduate as planned, but Denver International Airport would pay for one recruit class in order to help offset cuts to the DPD. Since the City of Denver staffs DIA with police officers, the airport budget would "cover one of these classes this year," according to Swartz.

The city would save another $12 million by putting off planned major projects and studies until next year. "We asked agencies to look: 'If you have a study that hasn't started yet this year, this is not the year to start it,'" Swartz explains. "Let's wait until next year to start it."

A project or study could continue if it found a grant or other funding sources, however.

Canceling unused Zoom accounts and other idle licenses and accounts that the city pays for saves the city money, as well. Money left over from the La Alma Park pool renovation would also be redirected under Johnston's plan.

The city would save $8 million by cutting back its budget for office supplies, marketing, professional development and travel to out-of-town conferences, and another $7 million would come from the general fund.

"These are the adjustments that allow us to do no layoffs, no furloughs and restore rec centers," Swartz says. "Within these adjustments, there are a lot of internal cost-saving measures, but there are no major reductions to public-facing services."

The city has already come up with the remaining $44 million. Nearly a third of that — $15 million — is coming out of a fund to remodel the Richard T. Castro building, a general office and public-services center that houses more than 800 employees with the Department of Human Services, the agency leading the migrant response.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursed the city $9 million for costs related to previous migrant response efforts; the city has already committed the same amount to the new migrant budget, a move the city council approved in February.

The remaining $8 million is unspent money rolling over from last year's migrant budget.

"That means $44 million of this $89.9 million needs for the whole year has already been funded," Swartz says. "All we need is $45.9 million."

The Mayor's Office will present its proposed cuts for the other $46 million to the Denver City Council Finance and Government Committee on Tuesday, April 16.

If any of the $90 million that the city plans to use is left over, it will roll over into next year, Swartz says.

"Our goal isn't to spend $90 million this year," Swartz says. "Our goal is to serve the people we need to serve."
click to enlarge The Montbello migrant shelter
The Comfort Inn in Montbello is one of two migrant shelters that closed around the beginning of April.
Bennito L. Kelty

Asylum Seekers Program

Since December 2022, nearly 41,000 migrants have arrived in Denver in need of city services — the most per capita of any other U.S. city, according to the City of Denver. 

During Wednesday's press conference, Johnston unveiled the city's new Asylum Seekers Program, which will offer job training, six months' rent at an apartment, food assistance and help with filing asylum claims. The program will be open to 1,000 migrants at a time, including those already in the city's hotel shelters.

The program "will give us a chance to better serve migrants and avoid cuts to core public services and stabilize the city budget," Johnston promised. 

The city has only one non-congregate migrant shelter left after closing six to reduce spending. With only 800 migrants currently in city shelters, Denver is at its lowest migrant shelter population since September.

After April 10, however, the city will start sending newly arrived migrants to congregate shelters, where everyone sleeps in a large shared space instead of a hotel room; there won't be a cap on how many can stay. The remaining non-congregate site has a capacity of 800, but migrants there can only stay until their length-of-stay period is up.

Denver's length-of-stay policy before April 10 allowed families with children to stay 42 days at shelters and individual migrants to stay for two weeks, but the city has shortened that policy to 72 and 24 hours, respectively, "with the knowledge that folks either find family or friends they can move in with in Denver, or, most often, they will seek other cities to move on to," Johnston said at the April 10 press conference.

"That has always been the case in Denver," he said. "Folks in El Paso have been put on a bus to Denver, not because they want to come to Denver, know about Denver, have networks here — but because it's the cheapest bus ticket."

Johnston said he already has city liaisons in El Paso spreading the word that Denver is no longer offering free 42-day stays.

Migrants who are accepted into the Asylum Seeker Program will receive help applying for asylum, a process that takes up to twenty hours per application, Johnston said. Those who aren't lucky enough to qualify will still get case management support, he adds.

Applying for asylum is one of the few ways for migrants to get work permits. Although court hearings to determine asylum status are being set for as far out as 2030, Johnston noted, migrants can get work permits after six months of waiting. The city has already helped 1,600 migrants apply for asylum, he added.

"The Asylum Seeker program is a program that will help folks apply for asylum. We will connect them to apartments, where they can live and support themselves," Johnston said. "We'll connect them to food assistance, and over the course of six months, we'll connect them to a program called WorkReady Denver."

WorkReady Denver will train migrants in jobs that match the skills they have, but also in construction, logistics, health care and child care. They'll also get free English classes.

For food assistance, the city will give migrants monthly debit cards with differing amounts of money based on family size. A nonprofit partner will administer those cards, which will be used for food and personal items.

"We think this will serve them well, but we'll serve a smaller number of people to get successfully to work," Johnston said. "We're going to show this playbook to all cities around the country. We think we finally cracked the code on how to help people."

The number of migrants arriving in Denver has been tapering off during the past couple of months, but the number of migrants staying in the city's shelters was at an all-time high in January, when as many as 5,000 individuals were in city-run shelters.

Denver packed its shelters in January to keep migrants out of the cold; the city stopped enforcing its length-of-stay policy until February, but it went weeks without discharging migrants from shelters.

Among cities not on the border, Denver is one of the hardest hit with migrant arrivals. It's one of the few cities that offers free shelter or onward travel to another location. The city has spent more than $68 million in shelter, food and onward travel for migrants; half of that was spent just in the past four months.

If Denver had continued spending at the pace it did last December, the cost of supporting migrants in 2024 would have been $180 million. Johnston has been trying to reduce that projection all year, and now has it down to half the original amount.
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