Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
City workers would not get raises, but they might also avoid furloughs and layoffs under Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s new budget proposal.
Nearly 600 vacant city jobs would remain vacant, but the city would increase spending in select areas, such as senior meals.
The city would also move about $7.5 million from various agencies to stand up its new-model “community safety department,” but it will come at little cost to its traditional police force, which will see its support continue to tick upward.
In announcing his proposed fiscal year 2021 budget Thursday, Keller acknowledged that it lands with little fanfare, given the economic reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city will put off spending tens of millions of dollars on what he called “awesome new ideas and initiatives and fun things” in service of targeted priorities, such as public safety and health and, administration officials said, financial prudence. The current proposal has the city ending the year with $49 million in state-mandated reserves, plus $40 million in contingency money.
“This is more about nuts and bolts, and how we’re weathering the storm,” Keller said at a City Hall news conference, comparing this year’s budget with past versions.
Despite waning gross receipts tax revenue and additional losses at venues such as the zoo, Keller’s total budget sits at $1.15 billion – a near match for last year. That’s due in large part to $150 million in federal coronavirus relief money the city received in April. The city has spent about a third already, but can apply the remaining funds to some personnel costs, as well as new expenses wrought by the virus.
That federal aid has been instrumental in preventing city layoffs and furloughs, though the city’s workforce has been hit in other ways. Employees will not get an annual cost-of-living raise, though the city will provide a one-time, $375 payment to cover the increases they will see in health insurance coverage.
And, as of August, 583 vacant positions throughout city government have been frozen – approximately 9% of the city’s job base. That accounts for about $15 million in savings in Keller’s proposed budget, but also means residents will see some service slow downs.
“We have adjusted all sorts of service schedules because now we are understaffed citywide,” Keller said. “We’re committed to continuing basic things like trash pick up, parks and rec (services), but things … might take a couple of days longer.
“We’re going to get the job done, but it’s not going to be quite as fast or on-time as it used to be.”
But the mayor reiterated Thursday that Albuquerque’s municipal government is in better shape than most other major American cities, citing new research covered by The New York Times that estimated Albuquerque’s revenue shortfall to be the second lowest among 40 large cities, second only to Boston.
Keller’s proposal sets the general fund budget at $592 million compared with last year’s $641 million. The general fund covers most basic city services, including police, park maintenance and animal shelters.
Despite what looks like a massive drop, federal relief money would likely cover an additional $70 million in personnel costs, according to Sanjay Bhakta, the city’s chief financial officer.
The administration has yet to provide the traditional, department-by-department financial breakdown with its proposal, but has referenced some give-and-take among various agencies.
The new “community safety” department – which Keller has said would create a third option for 911 call response outside of the existing police and fire department – would cost an estimated $7.5 million and have around 100 employees. The resources would come mostly from other departments, such as Family and Community Services, like the personnel it has addressing homeless encampments, and the Department of Municipal Development, which includes the city’s security guards, who have in the past year already begun responding to some 911 calls related to people who look unconscious in public spaces.
The new department would also absorb some civilian personnel from the Albuquerque Police Department, though the mayor’s proposal boosts general fund spending on police to $212 million from $205 million last year. The intent is to hire an additional 100 officers by the fiscal year’s end.
“We’ve been very clear that our police department has been underfunded, understaffed (in the past),” Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said.
The budget now heads to the City Council, which will hold public hearings and work to make possible changes. The final version should reach the mayor some time in mid- to late October for his approval.
City Councilor Trudy Jones said Thursday she still wants far more detail about the proposal than she has seen, particularly related to how exactly the mayor has proposed supporting businesses with federal relief funds.
Nair noted various planned expenditures during Thursday’s news conference, including $1 million in direct relief to small businesses, $1.125 million to help businesses cover personal protective equipment, and $1 million to help cover tents, heaters and other costs associated with businesses moving activity outdoors.
But Jones said the aid seems insufficient.
“(It’s) not even close to keep our city (open), and that’s our goal – we need to keep our city open and our people working,” she said.
_WebHeadline”>–EX: New research estimates ABQ’s revenue shortfall to be second lowest among 40 large cities