- PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
- Mayor Lovely Warren introduced her 2021-22 budget on Friday, May 14.
The $561 million budget proposal, which the mayor presented to members of the media in City Council chambers, represents a 5.2-percent increase over last year's spending plan. Despite the jump, the average homeowner is expected to pay $36 a year less in property taxes, a decrease that would be offset by a $205 rise in taxes for businesses, according to the budget.
Warren released her plan as she approaches the final weeks of her campaign for a third term leading up to the Democratic primary in June, and as the city continues to reel from the financial fallout of the pandemic, and grapples with escalating gun violence amid calls from activists and progressive members of city government to scale back funding for law enforcement.
“City government works when you have leadership that makes the tough decisions, and can work in partnership with the community to face any challenge that may arise,” Warren said. “Today, while COVID is not over, we stand at a pivotal moment in our community. We can look forward to the future clear-eyed and determined.”
The new fiscal year begins July 1.
A funding boost for the Police Accountability Board
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the budget announcement was that the mayor had agreed to meet an ambitious request of the newly-formed Police Accountability Board for $5 million — funding that board officials said would be used to hire 55 staff members.
In announcing her plan, Warren said the board should get that money and have full autonomy to hire staff and begin investigating allegations of officer misconduct.
“This historic investment will more than triple the PAB’s budget and allow this agency to begin its very important work,” Warren said.
The allocation, which the Police Accountability Board had requested in April and had received a lukewarm reception from members of City Council, appeared to catch its staff and members by surprise.
In a tweet following the announcement, the board's executive director, Conor Dwyer Reynolds, simply said, “Wow.” During a subsequent phone interview, Reynolds said he was "thrilled" and that he was confident City Council would support the plan.
"I think now that the mayor and city's budget people have said this is the right way to go, I suspect Council will go the same way," Reynolds said. "I'm not super worried about that, but we are, of course, going to continue to educate councilmembers on the PAB. I have faith that councilmembers will see the same facts that led the City's budget department to justify fully funding the PAB."
Board officials later released a statement on Warren's budget proposal that invoked the shooting death of a person by Rochester police earlier in the day .
“This investment would be a massive step toward transforming the PAB into the change agent our community needs,” Chairperson Shani Wilson said. “Today’s shooting on Glasser Street underscores the importance of having a PAB that can conduct fair investigations and create systemic change. More than ever, the PAB is committed to doing the work.”
A Rochester police officer shot and killed a person inside a parked vehicle on Glasser Street early Friday after responded to the area for reports of shots fired on nearby Lyell Avenue.
Police had stopped the vehicle, believing it to be connected the gunfire. During the stop, according to police, officers noticed a handgun in the possession of the people inside the car who refused to leave the vehicle. An officer fired into the car, striking the individual, who was pronounced dead at the scene by ambulance personnel.
It is unclear whether the majority of Council members will go along with the Police Accountability Board allocation as-is.
The Police Accountability Board made its audacious bid for $5 million in an 85-page document that laid out how the agency would use the funds. It plans to hire 55 staffers for three new bureaus within the agency, focused respectively on officer accountability, systemic change, and administration. Additionally, $850,600 would be used for equipment and other expenses.
With that level of funding, Police Accountability Board officials have said that they expect the average investigation into alleged officer misconduct to take 60 to 90 days.
While Warren said her budget plan would allow the board to start investigating officer misconduct, there is a catch. The board is still blocked from investigating individual officers due to a court ruling, which City Council is appealing on the board's behalf.
The budget proposal states that the Police Accountability Board plans to hire its full staff, develop a “disciplinary matrix” for the Rochester Police Department, and by the fourth quarter of the fiscal year, begin accepting claims.
Cuts to the Rochester Police Department
The budget proposes a 4.7-percent funding cut for the Rochester Police Department, which would drop its budget down to $90.8 million. The cuts were achieved by slicing money from several department programs and reserve funds.
For example, $2.1 million of the department’s budget decrease would come from trimming down its “vacancy allowance” — in other words by pulling funding for positions that are currently vacant. Another $1.5 million was taken out of the department’s budget by moving animal services — animal control and the Verona Street Shelter — into the Department of Recreation and Human Services.
In total, the department’s operations costs accounted for the entirety of the funding decrease, showing a drop of $5.2 million. The offices of the chief, administration, and community affairs all saw increases. The budget does not call for a reduction in the number of officers.
“We are refocusing the role of RPD while expanding the role of the Department of Recreation and Human Services in assisting residents in need,” Warren said. “These investments are intentional, and take a holistic approach in addressing the well-being and safety of our community.”
In addition, the budget calls for studying the creation of a commissioner of public safety. That position, which would be held by a civilian, would preside over the Rochester Police Department, the Rochester Fire Department, and the city’s emergency communications. It is not a new concept — Rochester formerly had a Department of Public Safety up until 1970 which oversaw those agencies.
While the budget doesn’t establish a commissioner outright, it does set aside $50,000 to “develop a strategy” for the creation of the position.
Crisis teams to expand
The budget calls for further investment into the newly-created Crisis Intervention Services Unit, housed at the Department of Recreation and Human Services.
The unit was created in September following the release of body camera footage of Daniel Prude’s fatal encounter with Rochester police. The unit serves as an umbrella for all of the city’s programs that provide emergency responders other than police. The Family Crisis Intervention Team (FACIT) had previously been shifted out of the Police Department, of which it had been a division, and moved into the Crisis Intervention Services Unit.
The new Person in Crisis Team, which was officially launched in February, has received much public attention, and the city has received some criticism for not using it for a few high-profile incidents.
The PIC Team is made up of social workers who respond in tandem with the department, and it takes over calls that are more suited toward mental health professionals than a police. The team currently has 14 social workers on staff, and typically one team of two social workers is on duty at any given time.
Warren’s budget would expand the PIC Team to 40 staff members. In total, the city’s crisis intervention services would see a 33 percent increase in funding.
“The expansion of the PIC Team is just part of our efforts,” Warren said. “We will also expand our Victims Assistance Unit to help those who have suffered from crime recover and rebuild their lives.”
RASE Commission million
In March, the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity (RASE Commission) released its final report, detailing a wide range of policy proposals to address racial inequity in the Rochester region.
The report, dubbed “No Time for Excuses: It's Time for Action,” called for a $15 minimum wage; access to mental health and emotional support services for Black people, indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC); expanded crisis intervention services; housing access; financial wellness; and many other reforms.
Warren is proposing $1 million in her budget to help implement the RASE Commission’s recommendations. It is unclear which specific actions that funding would support.
“It’s no time for excuses, it’s time for action,” Warren said. “These dollars will be used to start the implementation of the RASE Commission’s recommendations. It will ensure the city will start to deliver on those recommendations.”
Councilmember Malik Evans, who is Warren's sole challenger in this year's mayoral race, said he is eager to look through the budget and dissect it. Evans said he is fully supportive of the funding measure for the Police Accountability Board.
"Council has always been very supportive of the PAB," Evans said. "That's a good thing."
Warren’s budget proposal still needs to make it through a vote by the Rochester City Council before adoption. City Council will hold budget hearings on June 2, 8, and 10. The final budget vote is slated for June 15.
Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.