Breaking Into the Piggy Bank

Santa Fe’s amended budget draws on reserve funds to leave most positions and services in place

The Santa Fe governing body adopted the mayor's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021 late Wednesday night.

Nearly two dozen Santa Fe residents waited through five hours of unrelated agenda items to comment via phone and internet on what they say is misallocation of funds for the Santa Fe Police Department.  Representatives from two unions representing city employees raised concerns about a far-reaching proposal to reorganize city government. Councilors spent hours and hours arguing. But finally, just after 11pm, the budget passed on a unanimous vote.

The new $320.7 million FY21 budget represents a decrease of 18% from the FY 20 budget levels, but does not include any of the layoffs or cuts to services contemplated at earlier points during the pandemic. Instead it draws heavily on the city's cash reserves to help make up the difference.

Early forecasts from March and April predicted a dire $100 million gap between spending and cashflow. That number dropped to $83 million this month after the city received data showing actual revenues over the spring and summer months remained higher than expected.

The vote closes out two long weeks of budget hearings in which directors of each of the city's 22 management subdivisions gave detailed accounts of the planned cuts. Mostly, cuts within departments come from administrative and operating costs by eliminating costs such as travel, trainings and outside contracts. A few big capital outlay projects and programs such as a new fire station also hit the chopping block, but department directors said none of these cuts should significantly impact residents' experiences of city services.

In total, the new budget reduces the city's operating expenses by $19.6 million across all funds, and reduces capital costs by $16.7 million.

There will be no layoffs or technical salary reductions in any city department, though department heads will take a 15% furlough and all other employees will take a 10% furlough for four pay periods. This accompanies a freeze on new hires for current vacancies, expected to save about $7.5 million.

The department taking the biggest hit is arts and culture, which was ordered to cut spending by nearly 53%. Recreation, economic development, finance and general government are all taking cuts close to 25%. The budget for fire will drop by 12.8% and police will lose 11.6%.

Yet, for nearly everyone who commented publicly on the proposal, this doesn't cut nearly deep enough.

"I'd like to see more funds diverted to community services, especially affordable housing…unhoused people are not transients, they are members of our community," said one man, who identified himself only as Miguel.

The disparities between the city's housing budget and police budget, the looming housing crisis and existing inequalities in Santa Fe were resounding themes among the evening's public comments, accepted via phone and from people who signed in to a Zoom meeting.

The Department of Affordable Housing will see a significant increase of 13.6%, but Department Director Alexandra Ladd explained that is due to an increase in federal grant money and not an increase in city funds.

Santa Fe's amended budget allocates 7.8 % of funds to the police department. According to Lincoln Institute of Land Policy's Fiscally Standardized Cities, that is exactly in line with the rest of the nation: on average, cities spend 7.8% of their budgets on policing.

Yet, according to an article published in the New York Times, the average city also spends 5% of its budget on affordable housing. Only 0.8% of Santa Fe's current budget is allocated for that purpose.

"When we spend more than ten times on policing than what we spend on housing, we are effectively investing in incarceration as housing," said Sophie von Rohr. Another speaker, Poppy Wilder, commented that while a single residence in Santa Fe was recently listed for sale at $13 million, "the city's entire affordable housing budget is only $2.4 million."

These are among the topics expected to be scrutinized in more detail by the new Community Health and Safety Task Force, co-chaired by Councilors Renee Villarreal and Chris Rivera.

At Wednesday's City Council meeting, Villarreal also pledged to oppose all Homeland Security grants awarding SFPD military equipment such as armored vehicles, and to look into topics such as anti-bias training and call volume.

She also pressed Police Chief Andrew Padilla for a promise that the department would consider filling ten currently vacant officer positions with social workers instead, noting, "It's very obvious that most of the calls you field are for public health."

In response to questions from Councilor Michael Garcia, Padilla confirmed the truth of that assertion. He also claimed the department's response times to calls would go down if the police budget were to be cut further, and said the department is committed to moving toward a "community policing model."

"That is our end goal, to have social workers out and about to help the community," he said, adding that social workers would take some of the burden off police officers who are already overworked. But he did not see taking more funding away from the police department at this time as an effective way to accomplish that goal.

Along with the budget, City Council also approved notice of an upcoming public hearing for a measure to consolidate the majority of city departments into two new departments in an effort to "eliminate silos."

A proposed Community Development Department would encompass six existing departments, including economic development, arts and culture, and planning and land use; a new Community Health and Safety Department would include the fire department, the police department and emergency management. The current Community Services Division, which covers library, youth, and senior services, would also fall under that new department.

The governing body's official vote on the proposal to reorganize city government won't take place until a public hearing scheduled for Aug. 26. However, many aspects of the budget passed Wednesday night reflect an assumption that the reorganization will take place.

Councilor Joanne Vigil Coppler was the most vocal among several councilors who expressed concern Wednesday night that passing a budget relying on the reorganization of so many city departments before the public hearing or official vote could deny the public the opportunity to weigh in on and scrutinize the plan.

"This seems to be putting the cart before the horse," said Vigil Coppler, adding later, "The budget was presented as if reorganization had already happened."

Union leaders also expressed concerns about the proposal, admonishing the city for creating new departments that might require hiring new department heads even as the city continues a hiring freeze on all non-essential positions, and for causing widespread anxiety among city employees unsure of how the proposal will impact their job requirements, titles and salaries.

Adan Lopez, president of the Santa Fe Firefighters Association, said the union was disappointed "that the city is willing to create more management positions instead of filling fire department vacancies."

Mayor Alan Webber argued that the reorganization will allow for greater government efficiencies and collaboration between departments, and in the case of community safety, will facilitate some of the changes to policing that community members have called for.

The new budget goes into effect immediately, as the fiscal year began July 1, but officials say they will continue to tweak it continuously throughout the year as the COVID-19 pandemic changes and the economic effects of the endemic become more clear.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of one of the people quoted. The correct spelling is Sophie von Rohr.

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