Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
It has been a budget-making process like no other for the city of Santa Fe. And it’s still not finished.
After months of planning by city officials and several intensive hearings held by the City Council’s Finance Committee, councilors unanimously approved a $319 million budget Wednesday for the next fiscal year, an 18% cut compared to last year’s budget.
Compared to two months ago – when Mayor Alan Webber announced a projected collapse in city revenues due to the COVID-19 pandemic – city administrators and councilors appeared much more certain about the state of the city’s finances, at least for the time being.
In particular, Webber highlighted the lack of future furloughs or layoffs past Sept. 4, with councilors touting the maintaining of jobs as a major achievement.
However, not all parties were pleased with the city’s rollout of the budget. Representatives from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3999; members of the public; and even some councilors all voiced concerns about the transparency of the process and portions of the budget reflecting parts of the city that don’t yet exist.
Jumping the gun
When Webber announced Santa Fe’s new and improved budget on May 13, he and City Manager Jarel LaPan Hill also unveiled a reorganization plan for the city government, which Webber has referred to as “reimagining city government.”
Under this plan, set to go before the council on Aug. 26, 12 different departments and divisions would consolidate into three brand new departments with a community-based theme: Community Development, Community Engagement, and Community Health and Services.
Webber has said the reorganization will make the city’s government more efficient and provide better services to residents, and that the city’s financial crisis provided the opportunity for substantial change.
But the timing of the reorganization announcement has left some concerned.
Therese Martinez, a city librarian and recording secretary of AFSCME Local 3999, told the council Wednesday that it seems aspects of the budget already reflect a reorganization that has not been approved.
“We feel this is pushing, forcing if you will, a reorganization under the guise of a budget approval,” she said.
During multiple days of budget hearings that led up to the final budget vote, features of the reorganization were frequent.
The Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Book includes titles for departments still not approved by the council. Up until the vote, the agenda included councilors voting on a new organizational chart featuring new departments.
Some councilors echoed the union’s concern that city officials jumped the gun on reorganizing City Hall. During a Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday, Councilor Renee Villarreal said she was “struggling” with the fact that the reorganization had already begun shaping the budget.
“We hadn’t gotten full details for what the proposed reorg would look like and what the benefits would be to combine certain departments,” Villarreal wrote in a text message, calling some of the budget “presumptuous.”
Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler also expressed concern about the state of the budget, saying she felt a pandemic was the wrong time to reorganize.
“I’m very conflicted about this budget,” she said. “The budget was presented as if reorganization had already happened.”
Webber did not deny that the reorganization shaped the budget and said he did not view it as an issue.
“You have to build the budget on a set of assumptions,” he said in a phone interview. “If the City Council wants to change it, then change the budget. It’s really not that complicated.”
In the end, the budget received a unanimous vote just a couple of days before the state-mandated deadline.
While most of the public speakers at the meeting discussed defunding the Santa Fe Police Department, some did focus on the reorganization.
“I actually think you’re making the navigation of City Hall a lot more opaque by having all these ‘community this’ and ‘community that’ named departments,” Stefanie Beninato said.
A rush to the finish
Concerns about transparency, or lack thereof, at City Hall are nothing new.
Since the pandemic started, AFSCME and its representatives have frequently admonished city officials for what they say is a lack of communication on how COVID-19 has impacted the city and its employees.
Prior to the first round of furloughs, required discussions between the city and AFSCME broke down, after which the union filed an unfair labor practices complaint that alleged the city committed a violation by failing to provide information about the furloughs.
Martinez said there was a similar lack of communication in the second round of furloughs and the raising of employees’ health care premiums.
“This is the pattern we’ve been seeing,” she said.
AFSCME did email councilors a set of questions about the budget and reorganization. The union said communication with the city has been scant.
“Nobody’s in a hurry to answer any of them for us, nobody is asking us to meet with them,” said AFSCME Vice President Gil Martinez.
On April 29, Vigil Coppler said the council had been “backed into a corner” with the furlough plan. Four councilors voted against the measure, with some saying they did not have enough time to review it properly.
In the most recent budget process, concerns about transparency and the ability to include others in the process remained.
Former city councilor Karen Heldmeyer, a watchdog of city government, said she felt most people outside the mayor’s office have had little say-so since March when the pandemic started.
“In terms of getting both public input and the input of councilors, I think it is not going well,” she said.
After Webber first announced the proposed budget, it took the council 2½ weeks to approve it. Heldmeyer said the process seemed rushed.
“There’s always a trade-off between doing something quickly and doing something with other people’s knowledge, whether other people are the public or the council,” she said.
The Finance Committee did hold a series of lengthy budget hearings prior to approval. How much councilors impacted the shape of the budget before it was announced is, however, unclear.
Councilor Roman Abeyta told the Journal that councilors had provided some feedback to city officials about how the budget should look. During the City Council meeting, some councilors said the budget still needed some work, but that it could be adjusted at a later date.
And while councilors and Webber said they received emails and phone calls from the public about the budget, many public speakers said the community had not been consulted enough.
“We’re moving very quickly with the budget without understanding the conditions that have led to these important decisions being made,” one speaker said. “There hasn’t been enough community engagement, particularly with marginalized communities.”
Webber told the Journal a survey of citizen priorities was conducted, but said a public forum can be held next time before the budget is crafted to include more voices.
“Whenever it comes to citizen engagement, you can always do more and you can always do better,” he said.
Not the first time
Claims of opaque government have occurred outside the budgetary realm, as well.
The city’s selection of a developer for the Midtown Campus has also been accused of lacking transparency. At the time, some councilors said the public had not been given enough time to comment before a decision was made. Webber said releasing that information ahead of time would have violated the procurement code.
The Santa Fe Reporter has filed a lawsuit against the city for failing to provide the disciplinary records of Santa Fe police officers, with a judge ruling in May that the city broke the law by withholding the records. Webber maintained the city was following the law as written.
What the budget will look like in the future remains unclear, as the city will hold quarterly sessions to review – and possibly make adjustments to – the numbers. Webber told the Journal the budget-making process is very complicated and that many city workers worked long hours to get it completed in time.
“I don’t know that anyone who isn’t integrally involved can ever know what that entails,” he said.