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Council pumps the brakes on the new ‘safety’ unit

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The Albuquerque City Council has significantly amended Mayor Tim Keller’s budget plan for a new “community safety” department, largely nixing its security guard-heavy staffing proposal and requiring detailed reporting before the department can use $1 million set aside for its operations.

The new department – which Keller announced last summer during nationwide protests over policing – is intended to give the city a third option for 911 response beyond police and firefighters. The mayor’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal calls it “a first-of-its-kind cabinet-level department responding to calls on inebriation, homelessness, addiction and mental health.”

But councilors in recent weeks have voiced concerns about the staffing plan Keller presented, including whether it suits the city’s intended goals or would measurably change how the city currently operates.

Council President Pat Davis said the budget Keller forwarded to the council last month relied heavily on “enforcement”-type employees and that they may not be best suited to help those, for example, living on the streets and needing assistance applying for Medicaid.

“The proposal as presented gives the impression we’re leading with enforcement officers as the primary people who will be engaging with people who need help,” Davis said in an interview. “It’s one step down from the police, but it doesn’t take those support services out of the enforcement realm, and so it didn’t go far enough.”

Keller’s office has often said the new agency remains a work in progress, but his fiscal year 2021 budget proposal put forward a new department with 83 employees and a $7.5 million cost. Most of his proposed staff would have been transfers from other city departments. That includes 53 security personnel, nine parking enforcement employees and six people from the city’s crossing guard program.

None of those specific jobs are included in the budget the council formally introduced Thursday and will vote on Monday.

The council’s budget gives the department 13 positions. That includes some originally proposed by Keller: seven civilian employees from the Albuquerque Police Department’s Crisis Outreach and Support Teams, plus three Family and Community Services Department staffers (a social worker and two people who respond to homeless encampments). There are also three management positions. The budget would be $2.5 million for fiscal year 2021.

The council’s budget also breaks from using Keller’s “Albuquerque Community Safety” moniker for the agency, purposefully referring to it only as “New Department” in documentation. Isaac Benton, the council’s budget chairman, said “safety” too narrowly defines it.

“It’s also about the health and welfare of everyone,” he said during a budget hearing Thursday night.

Whatever the council ultimately approves still goes to the mayor for a signature. Keller would have the administrative authority to transfer existing staff into the department regardless of the council’s budget.

A mayoral spokeswoman said Keller would review whatever budget arrives on his desk but that he has “no real concern” about the council’s proposal to remove the security and parking positions.

“We all agree on where we’re trying to go with this bold, innovative new department,” Keller said in a statement to the Journal. “I wanted to move faster and get there sooner, but we can work through a more gradual process with the Council.”

Some councilors during Thursday’s hearing commended Keller for identifying the need for a new department but said they wanted evaluation and community conversations to continue in order to keep building an effective operation.

“This is the first step in a pathway forward,” Councilor Cynthia Borrego said. “I think it’s important that we as a community understand that really we’re just taking a bite at the apple. I know the mayor wanted to be a lot more aggressive, which I respect. I probably was a little more cautious. I think we will sort of compromise to this particular final plan.”

The council’s budget bills establish a committee to develop “comprehensive plan” for the department that addresses issues like employee training and the supervisory hierarchy. The committee must report to the council quarterly on its progress and performance measures before the department can tap the $1 million appropriated for its programming.

Councilor Brook Bassan said she and others she consulted were growing concerned about the department’s direction as budgeted by Keller as it was different than what she expected. Some people, she said, told her it appeared designed to fail.

“I’m really happy that it seems as though we’re going to put some brakes on what is being proposed here,” she said. “That way we can make a strong base and foundation so we can set it up for the most success possible for everybody involved.”

Only Councilor Klarissa Peña objected to the council’s budget for the new department, saying she was “bummed” because the city needs to move quicker on the plan.

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