Police spending has been put under the magnifying glass during this year’s annual city budget process.
Just two people spoke at the public hearing Tuesday for the mayor’s proposed 2021 spending plan.
Yet the overwhelming correspondence submitted to the city via email criticized proposed pay bumps for police department brass and called on the city to “defund” the police.
Ten people submitted a variation of a form letter urging the mayor and lawmakers to carefully study proposed allocations and “defund the police and invest in communities.”
Those letters did not not specifically mention the mayor’s proposed double-digit pay increases for top command staff, instead calling on decision-makers to not pass a budget that “takes more resources from our communities” and warned against increasing the department’s budget “more than is needed.” Additionally, roughly a half-dozen residents sent individual letters specifically criticizing the proposed pay increases, among other feedback.”
Calls to “defund” the police have intensified this summer following the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police.
Yet some supporters say it doesn’t necessarily mean dismantling police departments entirely and stripping them of all funding, but rather that funds should be reinvested back into communities.
City resident Ellie Pepper said funds for the proposed pay increases should instead be reallocated to summer youth employment programming which saw funding slashed under the proposed spending plan.
Doing so, she wrote, would better promote public safety.
Jamaica Miles, co-founder of All of Us, was among the two people who verbally delivered comments to lawmakers at Tuesday’s online hearing.
“We need to invest instead in the economics of the community,” said Miles, who indicated activists would be keeping an eye on lawmakers.
“If you do not speak on this budget, we know where you stand, and we will remember in every election cycle that follows,” Miles said.
Roughly a dozen activists protested hours earlier outside of a state Supreme Court hearing on the release of a city cop’s disciplinary file.
Police Chief Eric Clifford and his three assistant chiefs are poised to receive raises under Mayor Gary McCarthy’s proposed budget — including a 12 percent bump for Clifford, from $143,492 to $161,565.
Assistant chiefs would be bumped from $139,630 to $157,703 annually.
Department heads and non-union employees would not see raises under McCarthy’s proposed spending plan.
Clifford isn’t a department head, and the city Police Department falls under the banner of the Police, Fire and Buildings Department, which is led by Commissioner Michael Eidens, who works part-time and draws an annual salary of $20,000.
Under McCarthy’s proposed plan, total expenditures for the city police department would actually decrease by roughly $1 million, dropping to $19.9 million from the $20.9 million contained in this year’s adopted budget.
Nine vacant patrol officer jobs would remain unfilled, and a crime analyst position cut.
However, as a result of a $1.7 million, five-year agreement between the city and the Schenectady PBA settled in January, rank-and-file cops would continue to receive annual 2 percent raises for a total of 10 percent over the next half-decade.
Clifford declined to discuss the proposed pay hikes at length, and the calls to “defund” the police, but said the increases are the result of the PBA settlement and include four years of raises in addition to longevity increases that are a component of how salaries are calculated.
“Command staff salaries are based off of the highest-rank PBA member’s top pay salary,” Clifford said.
Residents also questioned additional proposed cuts.
City resident Krisanna Scheiter questioned the mayor’s request to eliminate the city’s fair housing coordinator position and director of parks and recreation, which is vacant.
“This budget is extremely tone deaf,” Scheiter wrote in a letter. “I think that is what is most upsetting.”
To help plug the $12 million deficit, McCarthy’s proposed budget also contains a 2.82 percent tax increase for homeowners, reversing a five-year trend that has cut taxes 8 percent since 2015.
The proposed $87.5 million spending plan would slash 63 jobs, 47 of which are currently vacant.
McCarthy is also proposing to increase the fee for residential waste collection from $224 to $274.
Schenectady United Neighborhoods President Tom Carey said such an increase is regressive and would disproportionately impact lower-income residents and senior citizens.
Neighborhood associations, he said during verbal remarks, are also concerned about proposed cuts in services to the city’s Building Department, which would lay off two code officers, a clerk and an assistant building inspector while leaving three additional vacancies unfilled.
“I don’t understand why some departments were targeted by deep cuts when others aren’t,” Carey said.
Carey also said the new sales tax agreement adopted by the City Council and county Legislature this fall appeared to be rushed.
Since the city bears the brunt of pandemic-related costs (as opposed to towns, who will receive a larger cut as a result of the deal) he said the county should explore more ways to assume functions that could provide a sense of financial relief.
“The city should get an even larger share of sales tax revenues,” Carey said.
Officials have said financial woes caused by the pandemic have resulted in what’s likely to be the most challenging budget season for the city in recent memory.
McCarthy said he’s not happy with everything in his proposed spending plan, and said federal assistance would allow some cutbacks to be reversed.
This budget cycle marks the second year in a row McCarthy has proposed cutting the fair housing coordinator position.
“We have a number of community partners that can and do fill that need,” said McCarthy, citing the recent merger of Community Land Trust and former Better Neighborhoods Inc., now known as Better Community Neighborhoods, Inc.
The City Council will hold at least three budget workshops beginning Wednesday and must adopt a spending plan by Nov. 1.
“At least in the short term in getting through this, I feel comfortable submitting that budget to the Council,” said McCarthy after the hearing.
Calls for reducing police funding come when the city is preparing to host a series of meetings as part of the state-mandated process to reform police departments with community feedback.
The first of eight events is scheduled for Oct. 21.
Miles criticized the process as a “sham,” contending the steering committee is leading the process without feedback from the entire community.
“It’s not the voice of everyone that needs to be heard,” Miles said.
The panel of roughly two dozen people, including representatives from civil rights groups, clergy, elected officials, academics and law enforcement, has been meeting biweekly.
“Stop leaking to the press that All of Us is participating in the conversation because it’s a lie,” Miles said.
All of Us has a representative on the steering committee.
But that rep hasn’t attended the two most ecent meetings, Clifford said.
“The last two meetings she simply hasn’t attended at all,” Clifford said. “To say that we are not allowing them to participate is a lie. Everyone on the panel knows they have an opportunity to participate.”
The Daily Gazette has attended the past three of four online meetings.
No one from All of Us spoke up at the most recent meeting on Oct. 7, nor did a surrogate identify themselves as being on the call during roll call.
The meeting before that on Sept. 23 was held at the same time members of All of Us were protesting the Schenectady PBA’s lawsuit, which was designed to block the release of some elements of an officer’s personnel file outside of the county courthouse.
The group will meet again on Wednesday to discuss logistics associated with hosting the meetings.
Clifford reiterated that the steering committee is tasked with hammering out logistics for the series of meetings, and has cast a wide and inclusive net when it comes to fostering community involvement.
“We’re doing it in a fair and balanced way so one group doesn’t have more opportunity than another group,” Clifford said. “Everyone should have an equal voice.”
McCarthy, too, defended the structure.
“The early meetings have been about process — not about substance,” he said.