Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Denver’s focused on housing, homelessness and transportation. Now stop me if you’ve heard this before: Denver still has serious problems with housing, homelessness and transportation.
The Denver City Council unanimously passed Mayor Michael Hancock’s 2019 budget Tuesday with those priorities in mind, plus new funding for mental health services, public safety and an office to streamline partnerships with the private sector. It’s a $2.4 billion spending plan, a 3 percent increase over 2018.
And it’s not enough. But lawmakers say it’s not really controversial, either.
The 30,000 or so gap in affordable homes won’t be filled next year. A substantial shift in trips from driving solo to walking, biking and transit, which are part of the mayor’s goals, probably won’t happen. But that’s the nature of the budget, Councilman Paul Kashmann said in an interview. It’s incremental.
“I mean the trick in the budget is that we could spend our entire budget on sidewalks or we could spend our entire budget on affordable housing, or any number of things.” Kashmann said. “But we can’t do that because we have so many things addressed this year — every year — so we have to Band-Aid stuff.”
The budget calls for $50 million for affordable housing, raised in part by an increase to the city’s marijuana sales tax. The new funds will result in 6,000 new homes over the next five years that lower-income residents can afford, the budget states.
About $15 million will aid people experiencing homelessness by improving facilities and connecting more people to services, according to the budget. The dollars for housing and homelessness will need to keep coming, though.
“It’s the mayor’s call at the end of the day, but I find it hard to believe that the amount of dollars we’re supporting around these things will diminish significantly,” budget director Stephanie Adams said in an interview.
The city will spend about $27 million to carry out the mayor’s “Mobility Action Plan” — about $4 million less than last year — that aims to reduce car dependency by bettering Denver’s walking, biking and transit options. Bike lane construction will receive about $7 million, more than three times the total in 2018. Another $7 million will go toward pedestrian improvements like sidewalks and better crosswalks.
Public transit, traditionally the responsibility of the Regional Transportation District, will receive about $1 million to enhance reliability. That means things like bus-activated signals that give them priority at intersections or slip lanes to separate transit from car traffic. The city will spend money to study a bus rapid transit line on Federal Boulevard, too.
The Hancock administration released the city’s first-ever transit plan this year, but it remains unfunded. Its pedestrian and trails plan is a little better off, but still lacks hundreds of millions of dollars to create a safe and complete walking network. According to sustainable transportation advocates at the Denver Streets Partnership, the city should probably start looking locally for more funding sources — particularly since Proposition 110, a statewide transport funding measure, failed on Election Day.
“I think Denver is willing to be a player,” said Jill Locantore, executive director of WalkDenver and member of the Streets Partnership. “If state measures just continue to fail, Denver should take action at the city or metro-wide scale.”
Funding could come from fees, taxes or shuffling the budget, Locantore said.
Other big chunks of the 2019 budget: Funding for 31 new police officers and 37 firefighters, plus about $3 million for services and facilities for people suffering from mental health problems and addiction.
In a press release, Hancock framed this budget as written proof of his “equity platform” that gives “an equal voice and place to those who are underserved.”
“This budget reflects the maturity of those ideals in a comprehensive funding plan that breaks down the silos of city government and invests in the assets that will ensure a prosperous future for every Denver resident,” Hancock said in a statement.
The Denver City Council has shaped those priorities — particularly affordable housing and mobility options — as well, Councilwoman Debbie Ortega said.
“I think Council has been very strategic in identifying priorities that we want the city to focus on, and I think we have pushed the administration in a direction that has addressed those priorities,” she said.
Denver is loaded. And city jobs are sitting vacant.
The city’s budget has grown each year since 2010 and kicked into high gear in 2014, according to Adams. That’s due in part to a voter-approved workaround that blunts the edge of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but also because of the booming economy. That means essentially no cuts, but agencies have found ways to save money.
“We’re not reducing dollars but I feel like our base itself is not growing significantly,” Adams said.
The other side of the booming economy means few people are looking for jobs — only about 3 percent citywide. The City and County of Denver is missing an estimated 10 percent of its workforce (permanent, not-uniformed employees), according to the Denver Department of Finance.
The city can’t fill positions across the board — lifeguards, engineers, technology services — because of the strong job market.
It just so happens that Hancock floated the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for city employees Tuesday. The move may or may not attract more employees to the city.