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Divided City Council passes budget with an eye on the Police Accountability Board

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A divided City Council on Tuesday passed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1.

The $627 million spending plan marks the first of Mayor Malik Evans' term and a $55 million increase over the previous year’s budget.

Officials said the increase was fueled largely by the nation’s skyrocketing inflation rate, which sits at roughly 9 percent, and noted that about half of the rise in spending is funded through federal dollars awarded to the city under the American Rescue Plan Act.

In the process of approving the budget, the City Council took steps to hold the Police Accountability Board up to scrutiny as it enters its second fiscal year amid scandal, boosted library funding by about $500,000, and rejected the Rochester City School District’s $1.1 billion budget.

The City Council's vote on the school budget, which was unanimous, is a formality required by state law because the Board of Education is not empowered to levy its own taxes, and purely symbolic. That spending plan takes effect regardless of how City Council votes.

Lawmakers said they rejected the school budget on the grounds that they have no oversight authority over it. They pledged to pursue changes to state law to either give City Council authority over the school budget or remove the City Council from the process altogether.



COUNCIL SPLITS ON PUBLIC SAFETY

The city budget passed City Council with a vote of 6-3, with Councilmembers Mary Lupien, Kim Smith, and Stanley Martin voting no. While the budget makes substantial investments in community anti-violence initiatives, mental health resources, and code enforcement, Martin, Smith, and Lupien said they believed it did not go far enough in those areas.

Martin specifically took umbrage with the allotment of $91 million for the Rochester Police Department relative to the $7.1 million put into the Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention programs.

“The amount of funding that goes into alternatives to policing pale in comparison to the funding that goes into policing,” Martin said. “Our community has been extremely clear in asking for a budget that aligns with safety, which means housing, which means healthcare, which means youth programs, which means rental assistance.”

The budget does significantly expand the city’s roster of public safety resources. Notably, the programs within the Office of Violence Prevention, which include gang intervention group Pathways to Peace, saw a roughly $6.5 million increase over the previous year.

Additionally, $5 million in federal funds have been allocated to the Rochester Peace Collaborative. That program, announced by Evans earlier this year, aims to offer financial support to community organizations working to prevent violence. Another $630,000 will be added to the Person in Crisis team’s budget, meant to support the mental health response organization in becoming an around the clock service.

The budget also looks to improve housing code enforcement. Housing advocates in Rochester have long pushed for enhancing enforcement, citing abysmal living conditions in many rental properties in the city.

Under the spending plan, one full-time attorney will sit in on housing court hearings, and five new code enforcement positions will be added in the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development.

“When we talk about housing quality, I can only do what I can do, and we asked ourselves, ‘What can we do as the city of Rochester, within my administration, to improve housing quality?’” Evans said. “This budget, with the inclusion of code enforcement folks, is one way of improving housing quality.”

Meanwhile, a report by the city’s Housing Quality Task Force, meant to guide improvements to quality housing in the city, is expected to arrive in the coming week.

A WATCHFUL EYE ON THE POLICE ACCOUNTABILITY BOARD

The Rochester Police Accountability Board is set to begin taking complaints of police misconduct on June 20. The agency has been allotted a budget of $5 million, but failed to meet any of its stated policy initiatives in its first year of existence.

For example, the board was expected to take 480 complaints of police misconduct and complete 225 investigations. It took no complaints and performed no investigations.

Meanwhile, the board has been mired in scandal since last month, marked by the suspension of its executive director, Conor Dwyer Reynolds, the resignation of the board chair, Shani Wilson, a volley of internal complaints about leadership, and City Council commissioning an investigation into the board.

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To counter the PAB’s struggles, City Council President Miguel Melendez struck a compromise: the board will keep its funding, albeit with a caveat. Only half of the PAB’s $5 million budget will be available upfront. City Council will regularly check in on the board’s progress of meeting its policy objectives, and, if it is on track halfway through the year, award the second half of the funding.

“We will diligently hold bi-monthly meetings with the Council and the PAB to review progress this year against their key performance indicators, and if the PAB makes progress toward their goals, which I fully expect them to do so, and none more important than beginning to take complaints and accepting cases, then Council will begin to release the necessary resources to continue their work,” Melendez said.

INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENTS, NO TAX HIKE

The COVID relief funds used in the budget would go towards a handful of infrastructure projects, including replacing lead water service lines and the “Buy the Block” program, meant to support homeownership in neighborhoods that formerly were redlined.

Additionally, the budget would move forward on a number of riverfront revitalization projects, including the design for the Blue Cross Arena addition and redevelopment of the Pont de Rennes bridge in High Falls.

Despite the surge in expenses this year, the budget does not come with a substantial increase in taxes for city residents. The typical Rochester homestead can expect to see its tax burden rise 70 cents in the coming fiscal year.

“This was really a monumental budget, just from the process, from the way it started out,” Evans said. “It was very collaborative, it’s the first time we had the Council president reach out to his colleagues to see what they wanted in the budget, and a lot of what you see in the budget is reflected from that collaborative process. We’re excited about a lot of the ideas that are in the budget this year.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.

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