Rethinking the City Budget

Guest Author: Grady Harrington -- July 14, 2020

I’m Grady Harrington, a citizen of the 3rd Ward and a member of the Peoples Defense group of activists and community organizers. I’ll begin with a quote from the late economist Milton Friedman, no hero of mine but an individual whose words held incredible power in rooms like these:

“Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”1

Health Department Cuts

With the joint crises of Covid-19 and police brutality I assure you, whether you realize it now or not, we are in a moment where the politically impossible has become the inevitable. My friend Mr. Mesfin will be speaking on one such policy proposed by our group while I devote the rest of my time to laying out just a handful of reasons for why the past, present, and proposed future budgets have been inadequate in rising to and addressing the crises at hand.

First, I’d like to highlight a recent report from KBIA by Sebastián Martinez Valdivia (July 6, 2020) titled Columbia Cut Health Department Budget Five Times in Ten Years.2 As Valdivia states, “The reduced investment in public health has left many local health departments stretched in their response to COVID-19.” This is illustrated in our city as our health department seeks out volunteers for contact tracing3 and in our city’s plea for donations to nonprofits on July 17th.4

The call for donations is in response to ComoHelps receiving “over $2.5 million in funding requests to meet rising needs in the wake of the pandemic.” I bring up this number because in this ten year period the Public Health and Human Services budget decreased, the police department’s budget was raised by $6.6 million,5 significantly more than what the city says it needs to support the community in the pandemic.

CPD Funding & Effectiveness

Logically, when you hear that the budget for a certain department is increased year after year, you would think that department must have been pretty successful. But what have the last ten years looked like for the Columbia Police Department? Failed implementation of community policing;6 national attention drawn towards abuse of civil asset forfeiture,7 police shooting family dogs,8 and dealing with the fallout of the Ryan Ferguson case;9 as well as recent allegations of allowing sex trafficking in our town.10 And these are just the issues that are easy to find out.

I know that largely the events I’ve referenced occurred under different leadership for both the police department and the city at large, but at what point has the pattern been forced to change? How can we keep giving more and more money to a department that continues to make mistakes that become national news, while funding for other departments has been neglected? The response I predict to hear comes from page 14 of the city’s 2020 budget: in the annual citizen’s survey, public safety is named the most important core service provided by the city.11

But has the public’s feeling of safety increased in the last ten years along with the police department’s budgets? I’ll let our city’s recent shooting deaths and the state government’s special session on violent crime answer that.

Federal Funds to Local Policing

And here’s the thing: the money allocated by the city is not CPD’s sole source of resources. In the most recent meeting of the Citizen’s Police Review Board that took place on July 8th, Police Chief Geoff Jones was asked a series of questions from the members of that board.

One question that was asked was how much the department is funded by federal grants. Jones responded, without hesitation, that he couldn’t answer that question. This information is important because money from federal grants places incentives on our local police force.

What kind of police work gets done and where their attention goes to is based on the amount of resources the police get in return. For example, information obtained from other police departments show a clear pattern of federal funds pushing local departments towards increased drug arrests. A 2001 report from the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin lays this out:

“Each year the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance disburses millions of dollars in federal funds to Wisconsin drug task force units, which routinely work hand in hand with SWAT teams. A fifth of that money is calculated on the basis of drug sales arrests, creating a powerful incentive to focus on the aggressive pursuit of drug activity.

Here's how it works. Justice Assistance determines what federal funds are available for law enforcement and allots 20 percent -- a little over $740,000 a year -- to agencies based on drug sales arrests. That 20 percent serves as a guideline for the Office of Justice Assistance when it determines agencies' actual awards.

Once the money is distributed to the task force, it trickles back to individual law enforcement agencies in the form of reimbursements for overtime costs related to drug enforcement. Police departments can request reimbursement for drug-related activities ranging from a full-fledged SWAT team raid to a traffic stop during which illegal drugs are found.

Overtime costs stemming from non-drug related policing, such as a stake-out for a burglary case, are not eligible for reimbursement.”12

As a result, one county in Wisconsin quadrupled its drug arrests between 1999 and 2000, leading to a quadrupling in its federal subsidy.13 Clearly there are a lot of resources and funding to be gained from federal grants, but how much is going to the Columbia Police Department? If Chief Jones can’t answer then hopefully my recent Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Justice can, but where is the transparency?

Proposed City Budget 2021

And that brings us to the proposed budget for 2021. First, I want to commend the city manager on increasing the budget for Health and Human Services by over $300,000, bringing it back to the funding levels of 2010.14 It’s also great that the proposed budget introduces the development of a public safety mental health collaboration with the Health Department and CPD.15 However, I see more problems arising from this budget as a whole than solutions.

This proposed collaboration between CPD and the health department will be funded with a little more than $600,000.16 This change will be radical and, let’s be honest, is going to be expensive. If the city can set aside over $9 million for a new police building17 and $2 million for a new park,18 then a new idea that will save lives and affirm the city’s stated vision of being the best place for everyone, not just the neurotypical and white, to live, work, learn, and play, should receive more funding.

Losing Focus of Community Policing

While we and I’m sure you all haven’t had the time to dig into the entirety of a 538 page document released a little over a week ago, I want to focus on another radical change proposed by the 2021 budget. The Parking and Traffic Enforcement budget is being deleted from the Transportation Department, with the Columbia Police Department taking over Parking Enforcement19 and the money for this change coming from the city’s Parking Fund.20

A popular chant coined by the Peoples Defense goes like this: “Too many what? Cops. Too little what? Justice.” This fact is only emphasized by this proposed change of bringing more police downtown. While the budget states that this is meant to bring about increased community policing,21 at the end of the day it adds even more unnecessary responsibilities to the police.

Setting aside the idea of building a positive relationship with someone while writing them a parking ticket, some of the fundamental problems with policing stem from too much being asked of police officers that are paid far too little.22 Asking these police officers to now be the sole city employees responsible for writing parking tickets along with everything else expected of the police only compounds this issue.

Unity in Community

I don’t have time to talk about all of the problems and solutions we’ve learned from going through these immense documents. But before I go, I want to close with an important point: Most of us, whether you are a part of the Peoples Defense, City Council, the police, or are a concerned citizen listening in, probably have the same goal in mind: We want to establish and maintain a community where everyone feels safe and can thrive.

While our philosophies and backgrounds are incredibly varied and give us different ideas on how we can get there, we can not forget that we are all working towards the same goal. We must always maintain a dialogue and work together, even if the ideas given may seem too radical or, dare I say, politically impossible.

I and the Peoples Defense will continue to take our message throughout the community with daily direct actions, continue to speak truth to power at these meetings, and continue to hope you all will be willing to work with us. See you all at 9 am on August 13th.

References

1 Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (Metropolitan Books, 2007), pg. 6

2 Valdivia, S. M. (July 6, 2020). Columbia cut health department budget five times in ten years. Retrieved from https://www.kbia.org/post/columbia-cut-health-department-budget-five-times-ten-years#stream/0

3 Patterson, D. (July 10, 2020). Volunteers try to fill contact tracing gaps but Boone County lacks resources. Retrieved from https://www.komu.com/news/volunteers-try-to-fill-contact-tracing-gaps-but-boone-county-lacks-resources/article_99e89c72-cd9e-5dfa-b05b-08393d614f2b.html

4 Hollis, S. (July, 17, 2020). CoMo Helps seeks donations to provide community aid due to COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.como.gov/CMS/pressreleases/view.php?id=6937&tbiframe=1

5 Martinez Valdivia, S. (July 6, 2020). Columbia Cut Health Department Budget Five Times In Ten Years. Retrieved from https://www.kbia.org/post/columbia-cut-health-department-budget-five-times-ten-years#stream/0

6 Pratt, P. (January 12, 2019). CPD community policing report now ‘dead on arrival.’ Retrieved from https://www.columbiatribune.com/news/20190112/cpd-community-policing-report-now-dead-on-arrival

7 Oliver, J. (October 5, 2014). Civil Forfeiture: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kEpZWGgJks, minute 8:40-10:01

8 Balko, R. (April 3, 2014). A dog's breakfast of an argument. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/04/03/a-dogs-breakfast-of-an-argument/

9 Campbell, C. (July 10, 2017). Ryan Ferguson awarded $10 million in damages after vacated conviction. Retrieved from https://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/ryan-ferguson-awarded-10-million-in-damages-after-vacated-conviction/article_b694d516-65ca-11e7-aa57-3bb21d1f7d6a.html; as well as documentary Dream/Killer on Netflix

10 McManus, C. and Somers, J. (March 3, 2019). Columbia police looking into allegations in 'Pimp' documentary. Retrieved from https://www.columbiamissourian.com/news/local/columbia-police-looking-into-allegations-in-pimp-documentary/article_a1e3e624-3617-11e9-b4ae-874ddfb78e38.html

11 City of Columbia (FY 2020). Adopted Budget. Retrieved from https://www.como.gov/finance/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2019/10/FY-2020-Final-Adopted-Budget-Optomized.pdf, pg. 14

12 Elbow, S. (August 18, 2001) Hooked on SWAT. Retrieved from https://madison.com/ct/news/local/writers/steven_elbow/hooked-on-swat/article_f1bc13e6-b29b-5ab0-a7cf-ba46
b1b3860c.html

13 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (The New Press, 2011), pg. 77-78

14 City of Columbia (FY2021). Proposed Budget. Retrieved from https://bloximages.newyork1.vip.townnews.com/columbiamissourian.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/d/fb/dfb5ce44-cdd4-11ea-8181-8b0f0011f556/5f1b1da1d6093.pdf.pdf?fbclid=IwAR15EXRfNiqZdS8DU4ZSfyhY1cxT7nMCK415e8cIs4NjARLkcypwlhRvZ4o, pg. 48

15 City of Columbia (FY2021). Proposed Budget. Retrieved from https://bloximages.newyork1.vip.townnews.com/columbiamissourian.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/d/fb/dfb5ce44-cdd4-11ea-8181-8b0f0011f556/5f1b1da1d6093.pdf.pdf?fbclid=IwAR15EXRfNiqZdS8DU4ZSfyhY1cxT7nMCK415e8cIs4NjARLkcypwlhRvZ4o, pg. 48

16 City of Columbia (FY2021). Proposed Budget. Retrieved from https://bloximages.newyork1.vip.townnews.com/columbiamissourian.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/d/fb/dfb5ce44-cdd4-11ea-8181-8b0f0011f556/5f1b1da1d6093.pdf.pdf?fbclid=IwAR15EXRfNiqZdS8DU4ZSfyhY1cxT7nMCK415e8cIs4NjARLkcypwlhRvZ4o, pg. 183

17 City of Columbia (FY 2020). Adopted Budget. Retrieved from https://www.como.gov/finance/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2019/10/FY-2020-Final-Adopted-Budget-Optomized.pdf, pg. 24

18 Turley, J. (May 7, 2019). Council passes Flat Branch Park expansion. Retrieved from https://www.columbiatribune.com/news/20190507/council-passes-flat-branch-park-expansion

19 City of Columbia (FY2021). Proposed Budget. Retrieved from https://bloximages.newyork1.vip.townnews.com/columbiamissourian.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/d/fb/dfb5ce44-cdd4-11ea-8181-8b0f0011f556/5f1b1da1d6093.pdf.pdf?fbclid=IwAR15EXRfNiqZdS8DU4ZSfyhY1cxT7nMCK415e8cIs4NjARLkcypwlhRvZ4o, pg. 45

20 City of Columbia (FY2021). Proposed Budget. Retrieved from https://bloximages.newyork1.vip.townnews.com/columbiamissourian.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/d/fb/dfb5ce44-cdd4-11ea-8181-8b0f0011f556/5f1b1da1d6093.pdf.pdf?fbclid=IwAR15EXRfNiqZdS8DU4ZSfyhY1cxT7nMCK415e8cIs4NjARLkcypwlhRvZ4o, pg. 46

21 City of Columbia (FY2021). Proposed Budget. Retrieved from https://bloximages.newyork1.vip.townnews.com/columbiamissourian.com/content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/d/fb/dfb5ce44-cdd4-11ea-8181-8b0f0011f556/5f1b1da1d6093.pdf.pdf?fbclid=IwAR15EXRfNiqZdS8DU4ZSfyhY1cxT7nMCK415e8cIs4NjARLkcypwlhRvZ4o, pg. 275

22 McCartney, R. (June 22, 2020). Police critic says officers need more money and less stress, along with greater accountability. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/police-critic-says-officers-need-more-money-and-less-stress-along-with-greater-accountability/2020/06/21/dee93ebe-b23c-11ea-8f56-63f38c990077_story.html

(shared with permission to https://racemattersfriends.com)

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