Denver, Colorado, USA city and county building (copy)

The Denver City and County Building.

This November, voters will likely decide whether to give the Denver City Council more power to change the city’s budget.

The proposal to expand the council’s budgeting authority — which is currently restricted by the mayor’s office — is led by Councilwoman At Large Robin Kniech, whose bill was heard and advanced to the full council on Tuesday by the Finance and Governance Committee. If the council votes in July to refer the amendment to the ballot, which is required for city charter changes, it will be up to voters come fall.

Right now, “we are simply in the position of reacting,” Kniech told the committee. “We are not able to initiate. So that is what this amendment seeks to address.”

As is standard in some cities across the country — such as Austin, Detroit, Philadelphia and San Francisco — Kniech wants the council to have the power to initiate appropriation of new revenue and excess revenue in the budget, as well as to authorize a transfer of an unencumbered balance.

Denver’s governing document currently does not allow the Denver City Council to initiate a spending proposal, even with super-majority support, to address a pressing city need in the middle of a fiscal year that may not have been known or possible to take up during the annual budget process. If the mayor doesn’t agree that the spending proposal is urgent or approve of the proposed approach, funds may have to wait a full year to be addressed in the next regularly scheduled budget.

But Kniech thinks that’s problematic, because “judgment is not exclusive to one individual or one branch of government,” she said. “I believe that this council has that ability.”

If the council had the budgeting power that Kniech is pushing for, for example, it would be able to help decide how the federal coronavirus relief dollars could be spent, which is currently up to the sole discretion of Mayor Michael Hancock’s office.

Denver’s chief financial officer Brendan Hanlon, who attended the Tuesday committee meeting, said he still remains “concerned about this proposal, and I would say it’s mostly due to the uncertain times that we’re in right now."

The part of the proposal he’s “most concerned about,” is the concept of using reserves and unspent agency funds, “because right now, those are the tools that we are using to respond to this emergency.”

Councilwoman Kendra Black of District 4 echoed Hanlon’s concerns in light of the “scary times on the horizon,” and Councilman Paul Kashmann of District 6 said he was “glad” to hear that Hanlon has taken the position that he has.

“I would hope that would be what he would do,” he said. “At the same time, I’m in full support of this proposal,” because "I have faith in Denver City Council to take whatever information we get and to not run off making harebrained decisions.”

Hinds and CdeBaca both expressed support of the proposal and highlighted the fact that much of the public already believes the council has the authority to control the budget and are therefore holding members responsible for decisions they do not make.

“We’re being held accountable for already baked solutions,” CdeBaca told Hanlon. “We get a yes or no vote. We don’t get the input to change things when you’re presenting them to us.

“I think fixing that disparity in what the people think we’re responsible for is critical, especially in times like the ones we’re in with COVID,” she continued. “People think we have some authority about how dollars are being spent and we don’t.”

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