Calls to defund police were a regular theme at the council district meetings, residents have also raised the issue of housing. (Shutterstock photo)

The City budget should address water shutoffs, accessibility for people with disabilities and housing affordability, said residents who attended a series of City Council district meetings intended to engage Detroiters in the budgeting process. 

Community input can help the City better understand residents’ needs, said Janet Anderson, director of outcome budgeting for the City’s Office of Chief Financial Officer. Anderson has presented results of the 2020 Budget Priorities Survey at each of the seven virtual community budget meetings. 

“It’s really something that the budget department is using to think more broadly about our task, which is helping Detroit residents,” Anderson said. 

Anderson mentioned in the virtual forums that the City isn’t dealing with as much revenue heading into the 2021-22 budget process as it has in recent years. The City had to make deep cuts to the annual budget last year because of the economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Detroit estimated it could lose up to $348 million in revenue from March 2020 to June 2021,  affecting the amount of money the City can allocate.  The pandemic also forced the City to make all community engagement virtual. All of the virtual meetings were recorded and are available on the city’s Facebook page

The virtual meetings sometimes lasted more than an hour, and City Council representatives were in attendance. Residents regularly spoke about topics that include defunding the Detroit Police Department, access to transportation and increasing funds for mental health services across the city. 

Yana Lynn, who lives in Council District 1 on the City’s northwest side, said money that goes to the police department could be better spent elsewhere.

“We should shift our money and our resources towards actually empowering Detroiters with resources like public transit, mental health facilities and away from incarceration and policing in the city, because we know that policing is not crime prevention. It’s only a reaction to the issues going on in our city,” Lynn said. 

Lynn said the City should stop funding controversial initiatives like facial recognition technology and Project Green Light. 

“That technology is a waste of money, and it’s not helpful to citizens who want to see Detroit transform,” she said. 

Several people who spoke at the input meetings echoed Lynn’s desire to shift money away from DPD. 

Susan Steigerwalt, who also lives in District One, said she wants the City to become more accessible to the visually and hearing-impaired. Steigerwalt believes that the City has the money to do more for people, but too much money goes to police.

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“If we even get rid of facial recognition and some of the military uniforms that the police are placed in, we’d have plenty of money for vision services, hearing services and for sidewalks,” Steigerwalt said. “I think it’s really important for us to look at what our priorities are. Are we taking care of people or are we imprisoning people?”

Erin Butler, who lives in District Four on the east side, agrees with taking funds away from police, specifically Project Green Light, to address other city needs. 

“Detroiters deserve affordable housing, transportation. We deserve to stop foreclosures and water shutoffs and all of the money that can be used on those things, a huge chunk of that money is going to the police budget,” Butler said.

Some Detroiters are skeptical of the community input process and question whether City officials will take their concerns and input seriously. Councilman Andre Spivey, who represents District Four, said he understands the skepticism, but he uses the comments when speaking to other council members and the City’s budget office. 

“They’re my guide when I’m at the table to try to vote, one for myself, and to convince my colleagues what we should vote for, what we should not vote for,” Spivey said.

Councilman James Tate, who represents District One, said that, despite some calls to defund the police department and some of its initiatives, it’s not that simple. 

“While we may have some say defund the police, we have others in the city who are participating [and] saying we need more resources going to the police,” Tate said. 

Tate isn’t alone in his apprehension about spending less money on the police department. Councilman Scott Benson, who represents the Third District, told BridgeDetroit in an email earlier this month that he has no plans of recommending less funding for DPD. 

“It comes from a place of high privilege to suggest to the residents of one of America’s poorest and most violent municipalities that we should reduce funding to our public safety professionals because of what people are doing in other cities around the country,” Benson wrote. 

Though calls to defund police were a regular theme at the virtual meetings, residents have also raised the issue of housing. Yolanda Jackson, public policy manager at Community Development Advocates of Detroit, said she wants the City to address over-assessment and other housing-related issues.  

“I think that Mayor (Mike) Duggan and the council need to come up with a compensation ordinance that develops a fund and provides compensation to residents,” Jackson said. 

A Detroit News investigation found that the city of Detroit overtaxed homeowners by at least $600 million after it failed to adequately bring down property values in the years following the 2007-08 recession. 

Despite the fact that Duggan already proposed a compensation program for residents whose homes were overtaxed, Jackson said the City can’t focus on housing without making amends for overtaxed property.

“Housing is critically underfunded, and we need to be investing in affordable housing development and a preservation fund which actually prioritizes what’s affordable for actual Detroiters,” she said. 

Tommie Obioha, a resident of District One,  said over-assessment is a concern for him, as well. 

“I’d like to see (City Council) and the mayor draft a more robust property tax compensation ordinance that prioritizes funding in the budget, which can be utilized to compensate those whose homes were illegally assessed and foreclosed upon,” Obioha said. 

Councilman Spivey said residents who missed the January meetings can continue to provide input on the budget priorities at City Council meetings and by calling council members at their offices. 

The Office of Budget said it will share the survey and forum outcomes with the mayor as part of the budget recommendation process. The mayor will deliver his proposed budget to City Council on March 5.

What are your thoughts on the budget process? What are some things you’d like to see reflected in the fiscal year 2021-22 budget? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter @BridgeDet313, and don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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