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Madison Rejects Police Budget Cuts for Mental Health Responders

The city’s Finance Committee has rebuffed three budget amendments that would have redirected $750,000 of the police department’s budget to fund a newly established team of mental health first responders.

(TNS) — Madison, Wisc.'s Finance Committee rejected Monday three budget amendments that would have cut funding for police and put the money toward a recently launched team of mental health first responders.

Together, the amendments would have eliminated 11 new police recruits, as well as a new position focused on police reform, for a total cut of $795,000 to the Madison Police Department's budget. The funding would have been used to bolster CARES — or Community Alternative Response for Emergency Services — which dispatches a paramedic and a mental health crisis worker to nonviolent 911 calls. The program launched Sept. 1.

In total, the Finance Committee added 13 of 19 proposed amendments to the mayor's 2022 operating budget, increasing the spending package from $358.6 million to $360.3 million. Committee members approved the amended budget unanimously.

With the amendments, the budget would add $50 in city taxes to the average homeowner's bill.

City Council members will have the opportunity to add more amendments to the budget before deliberations start Nov. 9, but they can only adopt another $80,000 in spending before hitting state-mandated levy limits — and that's assuming additional property tax refunds get approved within the next few weeks. City Finance Director David Schmiedicke said the final approval for the refunds is expected by Nov. 8, but "we don't know for sure."

If that doesn't go through, City Council members would have to offset any additional spending with cuts because the Finance Committee used all the funds that are currently available.

"There's not enough money to go around," Ald. Keith Furman, 19th District said, noting that he voted against one amendment that he would have supported if there were more money.

More than 20 members of the public commented on the budget during Monday's meeting, with most speaking on the potential cuts to the police department. Seven were for defunding the police, while 12 were against.

Madison resident Kim Richman said the police cuts are "irresponsible" and "make no sense." He said the police funding is needed to keep the community safe. But Madison resident Joshua Feran said it would be better to put the money toward keeping the community safe in other ways, such as the CARES team, because "the Madison police are already overfunded."

One of the amendments would have cut three police recruits for cost savings of $164,000 to be put toward additional staff for the CARES program. The committee amended the proposal to allow the police department to choose where to make the budget cuts, but the amendment still failed on a 3-3 vote.

Alds. Mike Verveer, Keith Furman and Jael Currie voted in support of that police budget cut, while Alds. Syed Abbas, Sheri Carter and Yannette Figueroa Cole voted against.

Another amendment would have cut eight police recruits for cost savings of $510,000 to be put toward CARES. It was unanimously rejected.

Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway included funding in the budget for eight additional police officers to address the city's absorbing 90 percent of the town of Madison's land on Oct. 31, 2022.

Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes said if his department doesn't get those additional eight officers, the city won't be able to meet the public safety needs of the town of Madison.

"We have asked for eight officers, which is the minimum number of officers that we need," he said.

The third amendment, which was also unanimously rejected, would have eliminated a new $121,000 position for a "police reform and innovation director" to find projects and use data to improve the police department. Those funds would have also gone toward the CARES program, but it's unclear whether it would be for personnel or other expenses.

Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis, whose department oversees the CARES team, said it's "a little premature" to put more money into the program since it just started last month. He said he didn't ask the mayor for more funding for the program because he'll know better in a year what the initiative will need in terms of resources.

"Now I would love to get a lot of the police's money," Davis joked. "However, I think to do it the right way we need to just slow down a little bit."

The budget cuts can be reintroduced and considered by the full City Council.

The committee created 10 new paramedics positions in the Fire Department by increasing fees for ambulance users from $1,275 to $1,410, which would add $945,000 in revenue for the new positions.

Currie, 16th District, who proposed the amendment, said she would have rather increased the Fire Department staffing without increasing the user fee, but that wasn't possible because of budget constraints.

To offset the cost for low-income individuals, Currie's amendment includes expanding the eligibility requirements for an existing waiver program aimed at helping those with no insurance or low incomes to pay for ambulance services.

In other budget amendments, the Finance Committee:

—Added $216,000 for a violence prevention team within Public Health Madison & Dane County to provide crisis response and hospital-based violence intervention.

—Added $57,200 for a community engagement specialist to improve the city's boards, committees and commissions.

—Added $45,000 for a digital equity coordinator in the city's Information Technology Department to help address the "digital divide" in which some people have access to the internet and other technology while others don't.

—Accepted grants for law enforcement training on de-escalation and youth violence intervention.

—Added $10,724 to continue brush collection at the Olin Avenue Transfer Station instead of closing the site.

Rejected amendments would have added funding for additional library staff to increase hours at the Monroe Street Library, a new real estate specialist position to focus on affordable housing and staff to provide translations in Spanish, Hmong and Chinese Mandarin for residents to better connect with city services.

(c)2021 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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