With all of the conversations about public safety in Minneapolis, one incredibly important thing seems to be flying under the radar: The ballooning cost of policing threatens the city’s entire budget. The mayor unveiled his proposed 2022 budget in August and it includes an unprecedented amount of financial risk related to police lawsuits.
I hope that voters will see through the influx of misleading political mailers and fear-mongering online ads trying to obscure the truth: Minneapolis taxpayers are paying more and more for policing and getting less and less in return. There is an urgent need to invest in a more fiscally responsible and resilient system of safety, something that I and other City Council members have fought to do for years to do despite aggressive opposition from the mayor, the Police Federation and their allies.
When I took office in 2014, the Minneapolis Police Department budget was $145.6 million to cover 850 sworn personnel. In 2021, the MPD budget is $181.9 million to cover an authorized police force of 770 officers. Despite a $36 million annual increase, 22% higher than it was in 2014, the number of authorized officers is lower and the number of officers actually working is lower still. In addition to both paid and pending workers’ compensation and police violence settlements, there are two lawsuits against the Police Department by the state Department of Human Rights and the federal Department of Justice that could result in costly consent decrees next year.
The amount of financial risk associated with legal claims related to policing is staggering in the context of the city’s overall budget. The amount of risk in the mayor’s proposed budget should make Minneapolis taxpayers concerned about the ability of the city to weather both known financial risks and any additional unplanned expenses or reductions in revenue.
As recently reported in the Reformer, the City’s Self-Insurance Fund is projected to be in a net negative position at the end of this year. A negative projection for net position continues each year through 2027. What does that mean? It means the amount of workers’ compensation claims, police violence payouts and other lawsuits could cost the city up to $68 million more than allocated in 2022 to pay our bills. The most important point is this: The money to cover these legal bills has to come from somewhere, either higher taxes, cuts to other programs or both.
As we grapple with the financial impacts of the pandemic like reduced revenues from sales and hotel taxes and fees, the city has been using savings to cover basic operating costs. This means that if our lawsuit-related bills come due, we have less wiggle room to pay them. It means there isn’t as much room for unbudgeted increases in spending, like salary increases for city workers, additional police violence lawsuits or other unexpected expenses that may arise in a future emergency. It also means that if our revenues fall because of pandemic impacts, economic shifts or decisions at the state level that affect local government aid, the city will have less and less ability to provide basic city services.
Once again for 2022, the mayor has proposed significant increases in spending for policing and relative pennies on prevention. Of the Park Board’s request to invest $2.6 million in youth programming, the mayor’s proposed budget only covers half of a program that is ready to go to both employ and support our youth, a critical and proven safety strategy, leaving a gap in future years when budgets will be even tighter.
The city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation set the maximum property tax levy this week, locking in a total funding amount for 2022 — one that includes a potential $68 million hole in the fund used to pay legal settlements that will need to be paid back over time. Now that the levy is set, and the City Council starts to amend the budget in November, this is the financial reality we will be grappling with. When our constituents come to ask for increased spending for community needs or investment in a more resilient system of safety that includes violence prevention, youth programming and mental health services we have two choices: leave them unfunded or cut other areas of spending. This is the mess the mayor hands us every year, and it is a mess that the city will have to clean up for many years to come.
Lisa Bender represents Ward 10 on the Minneapolis City Council and serves as the president of the City Council. She is not seeking re-election this year.
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