This post has been updated to clarify that City Council President Brenda Jones did not say she ignored public outcry during the “defund DPD” protests and to include more details of Jones’ 2021 legislative agenda.
The city made deep cuts to the annual budget last year, thanks to the economic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. Detroit estimated it could lose up to $348 million in revenue from March 2020 until June 2021 and has begun to prepare its 2021-22 fiscal budget as the pandemic wears on.
With difficult cuts ahead, the city has asked residents to help define its budget priorities.
Starting Thursday, each city council district will hold virtual community budget meetings so that residents can give their input on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts in July. Steve Watson, deputy budget director for the City of Detroit, says Mayor Duggan and the city council announced a more robust engagement effort around the use of public tax dollars and city services.
“Over the past three months, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer and Office of Budget collected and reviewed Budget Priorities Survey responses from the community,” Watson said. “Implemented in partnership with City Council, the survey asked the community to rank city strategies within five broad priority outcomes: economic equity and opportunity; vibrant and beautiful city; safer neighborhoods; efficient and innovative operations; and effective governance.”
The Office of Budget says 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. But some residents wonder how much their input matters to the city’s budgeting process.
Brenda Butler, a stakeholder of the Eastside Community Network and co-chair of the LEAP Neighborhood Improvement Committee, is skeptical of the city’s request for resident feedback. She says she’s unsure if the mayor waits for community input before making budget priorities.
“I don’t want to say he’ll completely ignore [community input], however, his follow-up on the request from residents is in question,” Butler said.
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Although Butler doesn’t believe the community will see its wishes reflected in this budget cycle, she does hope the budget will include funding to address the root causes of poverty, for arts programming throughout the city, and for more skilled trades training for youth.
John Sloan, co-lead organizer for Black Lives Matter Detroit, is also skeptical. Sloan says he believes residents don’t currently see their needs reflected in the budget.
“There are a lot of residents who don’t engage in our city governments because they don’t feel like their voice will be heard or that their opinion will actually be taken seriously,” Sloan said.
Sloan says getting more residents engaged is a hurdle because even those who are involved, particularly in activist circles, don’t believe city officials listen.
“There’s a belief that it doesn’t matter what people say. The effort we put in showing up to Board of Police Commissioners meetings or City Council meetings, doesn’t matter because no matter what they say it’s not going to be taken into account,” he said.
Sloan says he will, however, participate in the community budget process.
“Whether or not these efforts are honest, I don’t know. I certainly hope they are. I certainly hope that nobody would ask for a residence voice, and then turn around and behave disingenuously,” he said.
City council members say the upcoming community budget meetings are an honest attempt to help address that lack of trust.
Brenda Jones, who began her second term as council president in 2018, says the resident Budget Priorities Survey and Community Budget Meetings are part of an intentional strategy to get residents more involved in the city’s budgeting process.
“The district meetings also move us toward more strategic and transparent processes to address fiscal constraints, reward innovation, measure performance and make the budget more understandable for the community,” Jones said.
Councilman Scott Benson, who represents the city’s third district, says these meetings offer the City Council and Duggan’s administration an opportunity to hear directly from residents on what they would like to see in the budget.
“While it doesn’t mean that the residents are creating the budget, hearing from our bosses can be very helpful when we have to make difficult decisions on what services stay, are reduced or are eliminated due to the many uses competing for funds,” Benson said.
Since May, a number of community groups have formed to protest the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor along with mass incarceration and local incidents of overpolicing. These organizations, including Sloan’s BLM Detroit, Detroit Will Breathe and Metro Detroit Democratic Socialists for America, have asked the mayor and city council to defund Detroit’s police and public safety department.
Benson says despite those calls to defund the police, he has no plans of doing so.
“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 said.
Benson says he doesn’t believe the majority of Detroiters want to defund the police. After knocking on doors and talking with residents of his district this summer, Benson says none of his constituents asked for a reduction in police resources. He says the residents of the third district, which covers northeastern Detroit, want to see more police presence throughout the city.
Benson also says he won’t reduce funding for surveillance policing including Project Green Light.
“I do not think a reduction in the more controversial line items and an increase in funding for foot patrols and neighborhood policing would help to solve the unique issues that Project Green Light and tactical equipment are designed to solve,” he said.
Project Green Light, which launched in 2016, equips businesses around the city with high-definition cameras that provide police with real-time footage to stop crimes like break-ins and robberies. Since then, nearly 600 Detroit businesses have enrolled in the program.
The city’s Real Time Crime Center uses facial recognition technology to identify suspects in crimes across the city, although the technology and its use in the city have sparked criticism for regularly misidentifying Black and Brown faces.
Council president Jones says public safety workers are a priority for her.
“I always have and will continue to work to ensure the city’s police officers and firefighters have good pay, health insurance and all the resources needed to keep our city safe. And, very importantly, I am dedicated to their pensions being adequate for them after they have selflessly served our city,” Jones said.
Instead, Jones says her priorities for this year’s budget include increasing citizen engagement, and creating economic equity and opportunity for Detroit residents despite the financial hardship caused by COVID-19.
“Therefore, it is crucial that we have a FY 21-22 budget that invests in and supports contracting policies and procedures that benefit City of Detroit residents,” Jones said.
The first of the virtual Community Budget Meetings is for District 4 on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Residents of all districts can join through Zoom and are encouraged to participate in as many sessions as possible.