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As Denver explores more budget cuts in response to the migrant crisis, frustration growing among citizens

Some citizens say the city is prioritizing migrants over them
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Posted at 6:09 PM, Feb 21, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-22 11:28:30-05

DENVER — Some Denver residents say they're growing more frustrated by the day as the city explores more budget cuts to support its response to the migrant crisis.

Earlier this month, Mayor Mike Johnston announced the first round of cuts to city services after Congress failed to reach a consensus on an immigration bill that would have helped cities like Denver deal with the influx of migrants coming from Central and South America.

Calling it "a plan for shared sacrifice," Johnston said the cuts were necessary so that the city "does not have women and children out on the street in tents in 20-degree weather."

Among the impacts are rotating weekly closures at all DMV branches, no flower beds across all city parks, and a 25% reduction in spring recreation programming from Denver's Parks & Rec. department.

It's these last cuts residents believe will have negative consequences — and the ones they felt first, as city recreation centers officially began operating under new reduced hours this week.

“I have a lot of concerns because we have a lot of young people in this community that depend on the parks and recs,” said Dianne Cooks.

Cooks started a nonprofit 18 years ago to help families touched by violence in Denver.

“It started when my son Michael was shot. He was a victim of a drive-by,” said Cooks. “He was paralyzed from the waist down, so he is physically challenged in a wheelchair.”

She said cutting rec. center hours will leave many young people without a place to go and increase the stress on nonprofits like hers that work to prevent youth violence.

“It's going to be more work for us,” said Cooks. “Now I got to get with the partners, the community partners, to figure out what can we do to help our young people and to help families.”

The city cut hours at rec. centers as part of the mayor's effort to ensure there’s enough money available to help the city pay for migrant support. Without federal help, Denver could be looking at a budget of $180 million in 2024, which the mayor has previously said would look like a 10% cut to the entire city budget.

But Cooks told Denver7 Wednesday families she works with in Montbello feel the city has prioritized migrants over them.

“Oh yes, they have made them a priority and the families see it. They feel it. They know it,” said Cooks. “And so that hurts us a lot, because we don't want [migrants] to be out there. We don't want to not help them, but we want to be able to help our own people, our own families, our own community with all the things that we got going on.”

Johnston said the city is doing everything it can to limit the impact of the cuts on citizens.

Denver7 asked the mayor’s office why it wasn’t using money from the city’s reserve funds to pay for migrant support.

Jordan Fuja, the mayor’s press secretary, sent Denver7 this statement:

“We continue to explore all options to meet our budget needs, including departmental budgets, contingency funds, and reducing migrant services. To date, the city has pulled $10 million from our contingency funds to the Border Crisis Special Revenue Fund. The contingency fund also goes toward other budget needs, like increases due to inflation, new legislation or requirements that come up during the year, and other unforeseen expenses. We recognize that it is very early in the year to be digging into these funds, and it’s critical that we maintain some level of emergency funds in the budget.

The city’s financial planning policy requires a 15 percent fund balance (what the Post refers to as “emergency reserves” in their editorial) each year due to the volatility of sales tax revenue and TABOR restrictions. Per page 61 of the budget book [], we may only use fund balances below the city’s 15 percent policy when there is a “severe economic downturn,” and would then need to make structural changes to bring the budget back into alignment on a long-term basis. Making that decision now creates the risk of requiring even deeper departmental budget cuts in 2025. Additionally, page 70 of the budget book says, “reserves should only be used to provide a short-term solution to maintaining services until projected revenue growth or necessary expenditure reductions are achieved to balance the budget.” Our city revenues are not increasing right now, so in order to use these funds, we would still need to reduce the city’s expenses, which is what we’re currently doing.”

The mayor’s office also said it expects to refine its projected spending on migrants this year. Right now, the city expects to spend $180 million, but this number could be revised due to several factors, including a slowdown of new arrivals.

“However, we are not at that point yet,” said Fuja.

Fuja said the mayor’s office will continue to evaluate and make announcements about budget cuts once decisions are final. They expect that to be in the second quarter of this year.

Cooks hopes whatever the city does next doesn’t come at the expense of the youth.

“We got to make sure they have something to do that's positive,” said Cooks.

Frustrations grow among Denverites as city explores more budget cuts to address migrant crisis

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