Here are key takeaways from Mayor Mike Johnston’s budget

It’s a record $4.04 billion plan.

Mayor Mike Johnston speaks about his plan to address homelessness – and how to pay for it – at a press conference in the City and County Building. Sept. 12, 2023

Mayor Mike Johnston speaks about his plan to address homelessness – and how to pay for it – at a press conference in the City and County Building. Sept. 12, 2023

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

$4.04 billion.

That’s how much it will likely cost to make Denver run in 2024.

It’s a record sum on the heels of former Mayor Michael Hancock’s then-record $3.76 billion 2023 budget. And it’s the first budget from a new mayor in 12 years.

Mayor Mike Johnston’s inaugural spending plan doesn’t include any major swings in departmental funding. And like Hancock’s final budget, the $1.74 billion general fund that pays for department spending also makes use of federal pandemic recovery money to fill out key programs, including the city’s homeless and housing response. Denver has around $76 million in federal pandemic money left, which the city must allocate by the end of 2024 and spend by the end of 2026. Most of that money will go to Johnston’s homelessness response.

“Every budget is a moral document, it is an affirmation of our values and a roadmap to deliver a city that lives up to its greatest potential,” Johnston said in a letter introducing the budget Thursday. “In my first budget as your Mayor, we are positioning our city to respond quickly and decisively to our toughest challenges and take advantage of our greatest opportunities. I deeply believe the challenges we face as a city are solvable, and we will be the ones to solve them.”

If you don’t have time to read all 770 pages, here are some key takeaways.

The city is projecting a 4% revenue growth between 2023 and 2024.

Johnston has outlined a $1.7 billion general fund budget for 2024, a slight increase over the $1.63 billion Hancock set aside for 2023. “Heading into 2024, Denver continues to be in a strong financial position,” wrote Department of Finance spokesperson Laura Swartz in a press release Thursday.

Chief Financial Officer Margaret Danuser said the increase is a “normal rate” for the city. While the city’s revenue growth spiked in 2021 as the nation recovered from the pandemic, that growth rate has since slowed, particularly due to high inflation and rising interest rates.

And just because the city is expected to bring in around 4% more revenue does not mean it can spend all that money on new programs; Danuser said much of that additional revenue will go toward higher costs due to inflation.

Growing sales tax and property tax receipts are driving the city’s revenue growth. While property values grew by a median of 33% in 2023, the city has measures in place to make sure owners’ taxes do not spike year-to-year. That means that Denver’s property tax revenue is only expected to increase by around 7.3% in 2024.

Property tax revenue can change and also depends on the outcome of the November election, which includes Proposition HH, a state initiative that would reduce property taxes statewide. If that passes, Danuser said it could decrease Denver’s property tax revenue by about $8 million.

“We do think it will have a slight impact on revenue, just because of the mechanisms it deploys,” Danuser said. “We’re still sort of analyzing what that might look like.”

Check out our annotated, doodled guide for reading the big document here.

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City and County of Denver and Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

On homelessness, Johnston’s central initiative, the Mayor is budgeting to get another 1,000 people off the streets and into short-term housing.

Johnston is spending $48.6 million to shelter 1,000 people by Dec. 31, 2023. His 2024 budget anticipates spending $39.2 million to shelter another 1,000 people by the end of the year. Like the 2023 spending, that figure includes money for hotels, micro-communities and rapid housing.

A point-in-time count of unsheltered homelessness on Jan. 30 counted 5,818 people living on the street in Denver. But that figure does not include people in shelters, and some experts estimate that the number undercounts unsheltered homelessness.

On the long-term housing front, the Mayor plans to use a mix of city, state and federal dollars to create and maintain 3,000 new affordable units.

Part of Johnston’s plan includes spending $365,000 to hire three inspectors to speed up permitting and construction timelines. Recent backlogs have stalled development projects, which some experts say has worsened the city’s housing crisis. Delays have also increased development costs, which often get passed on to the buyer or renter.

Denver Housing Authority Executive Director David Nisivoccia recently told Denverite that the city needs around 60,000 income-restricted units (and growing) to catch up with demand, which means housing affordability will likely be an enduring challenge in Denver.

The budget also expands city money for rental assistance.

When the pandemic hit, the Department of Housing Stability launched emergency rental assistance programs funded through federal emergency funds. That money dried up once the federal government ended emergency pandemic programs earlier this year, prompting a spike in evictions.

The new budget plans to increase city funding for those resources by $8.8 million in 2024, which gives the city a $12.6 million fund for city rental assistance programs aimed at preventing homelessness. Research from the Community Economic Defense Project estimated that halting all evictions city-wide would cost $55 million annually.

Like this past year, Denver is budgeting for more police officers.

Johnston’s first spending plan — like his predecessor’s recent budgets — prioritizes spending on police and law enforcement. Public safety makes up the largest share of the general fund by far. In 2024, it is projected to take up 37% of the general fund, the largest proportion for any department. Independent agencies are in a far second, with 9% of the budget, followed by Transportation and Infrastructure with 8% of the budget.

Former Mayor Michael Hancock’s 2023 budget included $8.4 million to recruit 188 new police officers — the first budget in years designed to boost the total number of police officers. But Johnston’s budget includes another $8.2 million for 167 new officers.

“We are announcing today that we will begin by rebuilding Denver’s Police Force,” Johnston said Thursday. “We know this has been a major crisis, we don’t have enough officers to do the work responding to calls that residents have.”

Timely responses to 911 calls has been a particular issue for Denver’s Police Department (DPD). But the city already spent money meant to fix those staffing problems in 2023.

Swartz said that DPD estimates that the department will graduate 110 officers this year, short of the 188 officers the city budgeted for (extra money will either go to officer overtime or back to the general fund, along with any other unspent money across apartments). Taking into account attrition, plus the additional 167 officers budgeted in 2024, it’s unclear how many total new officers the department will have added by the end of next year.

The city also plans on expanding its police alternative, the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR).

STAR, which sends a paramedic and mental health responder to nonviolent emergencies instead of police, expanded from 10 to 16 teams earlier this year. Johnston’s proposed budget would add $7.2 million to add even more team members and vans, increase hours and build out the program’s leadership.

The 2024 budget also plans to spend $1.8 on a second “Wellness Winnie” team, which travels the city in a van providing behavioral and mental health support services such as needle disposal, medical referrals and Narcan distribution. The budget includes $3 million to add an additional 90 beds in community corrections, an incarceration alternative.

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City and County of Denver and Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Denver is currently budgeting $20 million for its migrant response, with the expectation that things could change.

Mobilizing emergency shelters to house more than 17,000 migrants is not something Denver budgeted for in 2022 or 2023. But after issuing emergency declarations in December and May goand spending more than $24 million on its response, the 2024 budget includes more advanced planning for future migrant arrivals.

The budget includes $20 million for contracts to serve migrants from the Southern border who continue to arrive in Denver. However, it’s unclear whether that will be enough for next year; the city has already spent $24 million since December. And just a few months ago, Hancock pulled out of a different contract to cover migrant operations, which would have cost the city $40 million.

Danuser said the city is using a mix of state and federal funds to cover migrant expenses, along with money from contingency funds and the Department of Human Services’ budget. So far, the city has received $3.5 million from the state and more than $9.5 million from the federal government but expects more money from the federal government to come through. Annual budgeting for migrant arrivals is unpredictable, as arrival numbers fluctuate throughout the year.

“We never know exactly what the inflow is going to be month by month, but we’ve started with that commitment,” Johnston said at Thursday’s press conference. “We know we’ll adjust as we see what happens over the next six months.”

On the transportation side of things, E-bike vouchers are here to stay.

While just a drop in the bucket, the city is committing another $2.8 million toward the highly popular e-bike program, which gives out monthly rebates to help Denverites purchase e-bikes.

Other climate funding in the 2024 budget focuses on electrification, with money for transitioning city vehicles to electric vehicles (EV), money to expand EV charging infrastructure and other EV rebates. The budget also allocates $15 million for bike lanes, transit-oriented development and pedestrian safety.

It’s all subject to change over the next month.

Over the next month, city staff, the Mayor’s office and City Council will go back and forth workshopping the budget. City Council might choose to push for changes or amendments to the budget, such as a request for medical debt relief — something Councilmembers requested but did not make it into the 2024 budget.

Johnston will release his final version of the budget on Oct. 16. Then, Councilmembers will hold a public hearing and have the opportunity to propose amendments to the budget. Johnston can accept or veto those amendments. Council can choose to overturn any vetoes and then must pass a final budget by Nov. 13. In the meantime, here’s a guide on how to interpret the budget and get involved.

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