The Denver City Council held on Wednesday the first of a string of virtual hearings that will help the elected officials gain a firm grip on the proposed budget for 2021, which includes millions in cuts and more furlough days for the city’s workforce.
After the hearings wrap up next Thursday, the council will then begin weighing what changes, if any, should be made to the draft. Whatever is proposed will be considered by Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration before the budget is finalized and sent to the council for approval in November.
Wednesday’s three-hour hearing entailed a high-level overview of the budget, a nearly 800-page document that council members first saw Tuesday when it was unveiled by the mayor. The rundown was led by the city’s chief financial officer Brendan Hanlon, whom leaders across Denver have hailed for keeping the city afloat during an economic crisis, simultaneously closing a $220 million gap this year while also strategizing how to bridge a $190 million gap in the next.
Hancock, who appointed Hanlon to the top finance spot in 2016, also joined the hearing to chime in where he could.
Council members largely listened during the lengthy meeting, as they are still just beginning to digest the numbers.
A handful had preliminary questions, however, including Councilman Kevin Flynn, who asked Hancock how close the city is to reopening more businesses that could have an impact on the 2021 forecasts, as well as the likelihood of larger gatherings.
Hancock said the city is working through the state and following its lead. Based on his conversations with Gov. Jared Polis, he said, there’s a “great deal of concern” around the upcoming flu season, so reopening any large indoor gatherings will be a “slow, methodical, cautious process.”
Councilwoman At-Large Robin Kniech told the mayor she was “concerned and wanted to have a really good open conversation” about ensuring that the council is in the "decision-making seat" if significant federal aid is received, or if circumstances change after the budget is finalized.
Kniech recently pushed forward a ballot initiative that, if approved by voters this November, would give council the authority to make budget changes mid-year. In the hearing, she told Hancock she believed his administration did a “good job” allocating the federal coronavirus relief it got earlier this year, “but you accepted them without a council vote and they were allocated without council votes,” (except in the few cases in which the contract exceeded $500,000, as required by city charter).
“I’m less interested in debating the past than I am understanding whether we are clear that if we approve a budget – and it’s a tough budget – that it doesn’t get rewritten by one branch of government,” she told him.
Hancock said not one member of his team would disagree with her point, but that his priority at the time was moving as quickly as possible to get dollars to people in need.
“This was just so unprecedented not only in Denver but the entire country,” he said. Bypassing standard process was “not unusual” and something he witnessed occurring in other major cities, but he acknowledged that he “heard” Kniech and agreed with her.
Kniech then told Hanlon she’d like to follow up with him after the meeting to nail down the mechanisms and the legal process to help ensure the legislative branch is not bypassed again.
On Thursday morning, the council will hold a hearing to go over the proposed budget for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. That afternoon, council members will dive into the numbers of Denver Economic Development and Opportunity's budget. On Friday, council members will hold two hearings: one for the Department of Safety, which will include the police department, and another for the sheriff and fire departments.
Before wrapping up at noon, Hancock reminded the council to try and appreciate the fact that the pandemic hit the city suddenly “without even a moment to breathe,” causing revenue to fall deeper than it had even in the Great Depression. He stressed that no one has any idea what’s around the corner, and that tough decisions will have to be made no matter what lies ahead.
“I hope we keep that in mind going forward,” he said.