'It's a hard no:' Denver clerk and recorder responds to mayor's request to cut budget in major election year

Posted at 1:00 PM, Feb 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-21 14:11:08-05

DENVER — "We absolutely can't do it."

That was Paul Lopez's response to Mayor Mike Johnston's office requesting the Clerk and Recorder for the City and County of Denver cut a million dollars from its budget.

This is all part of a citywide effort the mayor is spearheading to deal with the influx of migrants after the failure of a bipartisan immigration bill in Congress.

Budget cuts impact "our ability to ensure a secure election, to ensure a transparent election and to ensure access... You cannot run an election without the proper resources to be able to do so. The good thing is that I'm also an independent elected official. I don't work for the mayor. I don't answer to the mayor. The people of the City and County of Denver elected me to to oversee the elections processes, to administer the elections processes and make sure that we have the resources to do so," Lopez said.

Lopez is in charge of the department that's responsible for elections, as well as marriage licenses, land transactions and foreclosure processes.

"We need personnel. We have to have equipment that is maintained, that is secure. Our voting centers have to be secure, our equipment has to be operational, we have to have cameras on all of our boxes. It is a one heck of an operation," Lopez said of the upcoming elections his office will oversee.

In November, Lopez and the clerk and recorder's office will be tasked with overseeing four elections, according to Lopez - most notably the 2024 presidential election.

"There's no possible way. And no scenario in which we can run an election in 2024 - four elections, including a presidential election, and be able to maintain the same level of service, the same level of excellence," Lopez said.

Moreover, the office of the clerk and recorder was already asked to trim their budget for the year, according to Lopez.

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He sent a letter to Denver Mayor Mike Johnston and all 13 city council members last year expressing his frustration over a cut to his budget proposal that would expand the elections office and enhance security.

Lopez originally submitted a one-time $942,000 request in the budget for these improvements. He said those improvements were instead allocated $175,000 — a decrease of more than 80%.

During that discussion last year, Mayor Johnston's team sent a statement that read: "The Mayor’s Office is committed to supporting and prioritizing the Clerk and Recorder’s work to ensure secure elections in Denver, which is why the 2024 proposed budget increases the budget for the Elections division by 25%, significantly greater than the 3.7% increase in the overall general fund budget. 

Lopez’s office responded to that statement, noting the elections budget fluctuates based on the number and type of elections held each year.

"It's a very slippery slope in terms of, you know, what that says across the country for folks who are trying to maintain their elections budget, and are seeing folks trying to encroach on that and try to defund elections," Lopez said.

And he also explained his issues with the mayor office's reasoning for asking his department to take another hit.

"I also think it's kind of a false narrative, to say that the city budget shortfall is because of the migrant crisis, I think it's scapegoating. I think it's, frankly, irresponsible and dangerous," Lopez said.

He believes it stems from something more internal.

"There are contracts and there are, you know, movements that the mayor's office has made in a rush to advance political goals and campaign promises that have contributed to the dip in the city budget," Lopez said.

The office of the clerk and recorder is not the only one being asked to trim down their department across the City of Denver.

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"Every city agency has been asked to identify budget savings, including DDPHE. We don’t have specifics yet and don’t expect to have those for a few more months," the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment said.

But the office of the clerk and recorder was one of the first to get specifics on cuts.

"The Mayor has asked every city agency, including the Department of Public Safety, to begin to identify budget savings proposals for 2024. It is too early right now to say what specific savings will be within our department until we have had the time to assess and identify options. We expect to have more to share on this in April," the Department of Public Safety for the City and County of Denver said.

Among the DMV, Denver Parks & Recreation and office of the clerk and recorder asked to find wiggle room in their budgets is the Office of the Denver District Attorney.

"Our total budget from which we have to cut 5% is $44,164,752," the Office of the Denver District Attorney said.

The mayor's office sent us this statement in response to Lopez:

"The Mayor’s Office has asked all agencies, including independent agencies, to identify cost savings for the crisis our city is facing. Given independent agencies do not report directly to the Mayor, he cannot require them to participate.

While the Clerk's office is not required to identify cost savings, our office did ask Clerk Lopez to work to identify $934k in savings to support the Border Crisis Special Revenue Fund. We know that supporting newcomers is a shared priority for both the Mayor and the Clerk. We will continue to work closely with Clerk Lopez to prioritize both election security and newcomer support.

As the mayor has said, in light of federal inaction at the border, we will need to make cuts across agencies and will make decisions as we assess potential impacts and savings."

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston announces cuts to city services to deal with migrant crisis

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