New money in city budget restores funding to depts

The budget is set to be approved today, and $2 million in unexpected funds could help some city departments.

by Dina Elrashidy

Nick Juarez wondered for more than a month whether he was going to start the new year unemployed.

After three years working as a crime prevention specialist for the Minneapolis Police Department, Juarez received his 60-day layoff notice in early November. But last week, he got some good news.

Thanks to $2 million in unexpected funds, his position and a handful of others had likely been saved.

The City CouncilâÄôs Ways and Means Budget Committee decided Dec. 7 to use the money to bolster other strained city departments like the Internal Audit Department and the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, and allow the city to continue financial support to programs like the Domestic Abuse Project.

The extra money came from retirements and cuts to overtime pay in MPD, and a larger grant from the federal government than the city had expected.

After more than four months of discussion, the cityâÄôs budget will be finalized Wednesday. Several City Council members and Mayor R.T. Rybak said the changes will likely hold, but Juarez was careful about his optimism.

âÄúThings are looking good, but a lot can change between now and [WednesdayâÄôs] meeting,âÄù Juarez said. âÄúJust cross your fingers, and hope for the best.âÄù

For the first time in nearly a decade, Mayor RybakâÄôs budget for 2012 didnâÄôt include a property tax increase.  Instead, almost every city departmentâÄôs budget was cut, resulting in the elimination of roughly 100 city positions.

For many city officials the extra funds came as a pleasant surprise. Approximately $1.6 million came from the Minneapolis Police Department, through a combination of cuts to overtime pay and an increase in retirements. On top of that, the city received $400,000 more than expected from the federal Community Development Block Grant.

âÄúItâÄôs very unfortunate when an employee gets a layoff notice and then is called back,âÄù Rybak said. âÄúThe only thing worse is if that person wouldnâÄôt have been called back at all.âÄù

âÄòWeâÄôre making a huge differenceâÄô

The Domestic Abuse Project also got a welcome surprise with the budget committeeâÄôs adjustments.

Based on RybakâÄôs budget recommendations, DAP was set to receive no city funding, the programâÄôs executive director Carol Arthur said.

DAP will receive $60,000 from the Community Development Block Grant to be spent on advocate training and helping aid victimsâÄô immediate needs âÄî from feeding abuse victims to finding them a safe place to stay.

MPD will transfer $317,000 of its unused funds to the City Attorney for the Domestic Assault Prosecution Partnership, which DAP partners with on prosecution in domestic abuse cases.

âÄúWe know weâÄôre making a huge difference,âÄù Arthur said.

Last year, DAP worked with 4,300 men, women and children, and Arthur said she is hopeful that that will increase next year. The program started in 1979.

For each case of domestic abuse that it prevents, Arthur said DAP saves the city at least $3,000.

The program works closely with the Aurora Center and the University of Minnesota Police Department in training advocates and officers on how to deal with domestic abuse situations.

Arthur said sheâÄôs optimistic that the new money funneled to her program will go through Wednesday.

âÄúThereâÄôs such great need,âÄù she said.

Less than half the cut back

The Internal Audit Department was created in 2009 to watch over the cityâÄôs finances, evaluate departments for risks of fraud and maximize efficiency.

This year, its budget was set to be cut in half to generate $130,000 in savings âÄî one of the three auditor positions would have been eliminated.

The department will now get back about $60,000 of that projected cut. Internal auditor Magdy Mossaad said that money likely isnâÄôt enough to fill the third position.

âÄúItâÄôs not as good as we wanted, but itâÄôs still good news,âÄù he said.

More cuts to CPED

The cityâÄôs Department of Community Planning and Economic Development âÄîfocused on creating jobs, affordable housing and transit development âÄî faced another round of cuts in this yearâÄôs budget.

The Ways and Means Budget Committee reallocated approximately $90,000 last week.

Despite that funding increase, CPED plans to cut 12 people next year, bringing its staff down to 116 âÄî nearly half of its level in 2003.

CPED Director Mike Christenson said the department will need to find more aid from private and non-profit donors.

Four percent, or $3.6 million, of CPEDâÄôs budget will come from the cityâÄôs General Fund. ThatâÄôs down 19 percent from last year, and Christenson expects that decline to continue.

He said Minneapolis programs vying for city money haves put âÄúpressure on the General Fund.âÄù

The General Fund is the cityâÄôs discretionary spending budget generally used for fire department, police, public works and administrative departments.

CPED spends months planning before their budget is decided upon each year, but things can change quickly, Christenson said. He wasnâÄôt sure whether the markups would go through. Even if they do, his department is still facing an uncertain future, much like the rest of the city.

âÄúItâÄôs hard to see long-time public servants leave,âÄù Christenson said.

Round two in 2012?

With the latest city budget news, JuarezâÄôs position appears to be safe âÄî at least for another year.

 âÄúItâÄôs nice to go into 2012 being employed,âÄù Juarez said.

In fact, the city is looking to use the new money to fill another crime prevention specialist position in JuarezâÄôs second precinct, which includes Southeast Como and Marcy-Holmes.

Since the summer, Juarez has been the specialist for all 19 neighborhoods in the precinct. In the past, it had been split between two people.

The latest budget plans will fill the other position, allowing Juarez to focus more of his efforts on the University of Minnesota area.

But Juarez still doesnâÄôt feel his job is safe.

âÄúWith city budgets now-a-days, it kind of goes year-to-year,âÄù Juarez said. âÄúIs this going to happen again fall of 2012?âÄù

Juarez said his employment status is something that will constantly be at the âÄúback of your mind.âÄù He pointed to shrinking Local Government Aid  as a factor.

Local Government Aid, which the state provides to municipal governments, has steadily diminished over the years, forcing city officials to find funds elsewhere. 

Councilman Gary Schiff said that planning the budget will always be unpredictable because so many factors are uncertain.

âÄúIt wasnâÄôt new money that we discovered hiding under a rock,âÄù Schiff said of the funds allocated last week. âÄúManaging overtime and projecting retirements is always going to be a volatile element of city budgeting.âÄù

City officials said that passing a budget this year has been easier than in the past.

âÄúUsually at this time in the budget, there are some issues where we have a disagreement. But at this stage, there certainly arenâÄôt any major disagreements,âÄù said Rybak. âÄúAt this point there doesnâÄôt seem to be any minor ones either.âÄù

The City Council will meet Wednesday night to discuss the budget one last time before officially adopting it.