Minneapolis officials on Monday kicked off another series of budget negotiations that are likely to focus on efforts to transform public safety in response to George Floyd's murder and set up a new system of government that voters approved last year.
In a speech Monday morning, Mayor Jacob Frey outlined a plan to spend $3.3 billion over the next two years amid efforts to boost staffing for police, mental health teams and civilian traffic control agents. He also proposed spending more to improve the quality of public housing, treat opioid addiction and combat climate change.
"Cities operate in the here and now. You need your garbage picked up now. You need a home now. You need to feel safe now," the mayor said during his annual budget address, the first delivered in person since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic. "Residents of Minneapolis are demanding results now. We must answer that call now."
The mayor's speech kicked off the beginning of a months-long budgeting process that is likely to wrap in December. Frey and the City Council will be debating a spending plan at the same time they're working to set up a new Office of Community Safety and to transition to the new "strong mayor" form of government that voters approved last year.
For seven of the council's 13 members — those serving their first terms — this will mark their first time approving a city budget. It's the only time they'll do so before their seats come up for re-election next year. Parts of the process will also feel new to veteran council members, who are for the first time attempting to negotiate two years worth of budgets in one shot.
Frey on Monday pitched his spending proposal as part of an effort to "do more than simply get back to the old normal."
"We can blow by that old normal and do things differently than we ever have before," he said.
Unlike in recent years, when city leaders trimmed millions in spending amid an economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, this year elected leaders are looking at adding spending. Amelia Cruver, the city's budget director, said they're encouraged by recent credit ratings and several months of sales tax collections that have been coming in closer to pre-pandemic levels.
Still, Frey is pitching an increase in the property tax levy — and one that is larger than the city anticipated in previous financial projections. Frey's spending plan calls for a 6.5% increase in 2023 — an amount the city anticipates would give the median homeowner a roughly $1,835 bill — and 6.2% in 2024. Earlier projections had estimated the increase in the tax levies for those years would be closer to 5%. Other entities, such as Hennepin County and Minneapolis Public Schools will set their own rates.
Frey's office on Monday attributed that larger increase to a number of factors: an effort to increase staffing that had been trimmed during the pandemic; an effort to more precisely plan for the budget two years out; and an increase in workers' compensation claims and settlements tied to the Police Department, which the city predicts will peak in 2023 and begin decreasing in 2024.
Groups that have previously advocated for moving money from the city's Police Department to other programs are already watching this year's budget proceedings.
"When we're looking at MPD's budget, $400 million over the next two years, that's just a lot of money," said Kenza Hadj-Moussa, a spokesperson for progressive organization TakeAction Minnesota. "That's money that's not going to housing, public schools or any other city functions."
The mayor's proposal includes about $2.2 million over two years for a new Office of Community Safety, enough to cover the salaries of its newly appointed commissioner, Cedric Alexander, as well as an assistant and three people focused on communications.
The offices that report to the commissioner — police, fire, 911, emergency management and a new Office of Neighborhood Safety that will house violence prevention programs — will each have their own budget.
Frey has proposed giving the Minneapolis Police Department nearly $400 million over two years amid a push to increase staffing to an average of 835 officers in 2025. The mayor said the city intends to launch a marketing campaign to recruit new candidates, start an internship program aimed at helping high school students "explore the field of law enforcement," and offer four recruit classes each year.
His proposal also sets aside a combined $5 million to cover the costs of implementing a consent decree. The city anticipates it could enter a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, which is investigating whether Minneapolis police engaged in a "pattern and practice" of illegal conduct, and is negotiating a similar agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
Beyond policing, Frey's proposal calls for increasing funding for Behavioral Crisis Response Teams so the civilian workers can eventually answer mental health calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it calls for adding employees to a traffic control unit that dispatches civilians to handle some complaints, and to set up a voluntary body camera program for those employees and other civilians who have been subject to an increasing amount of threats.
Some council members already indicated they're going to be paying close attention to how much funding their offices receive as the city transitions to a new form of government designating the mayor as the "chief executive" responsible for most departments' daily operations and the council as the body primarily responsible for writing local ordinances and vetting budget proposals.
Council Member Elliott Payne has been working with Frey's office on a proposal to transfer a handful of employees from the city's Office of Performance and Innovation (OPI) into the audit division. Among other work, the staff in OPI helped with a police staffing study and efforts to set up the civilian-led mental health teams. Some of the office's employees were at the center of a public campaign raising concerns about a racist and toxic environment in City Hall.
"I just saw this very clear alignment with the approach to policymaking that OPI used and the need that the legislative body has, and so I saw that as a potential win-win, for lack of a better term," said Payne, who previously worked in the office.
Payne said he was still analyzing the mayor's budget proposal Monday afternoon but was encouraged by the increases in funding for mental health programs. He said he's interested in looking at whether the city could also improve safety by adding features such as speed bumps to help calm traffic.
Council Member LaTrisha Vetaw said she was excited by the mayor's budget address because many of his proposals, such as plans to boost safety services and replace aging street lights, reflected concerns she was hearing from her constituents on the city's North Side.
"If I had to choose, I would have just voted today," she said.