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Discussion on reducing police budget dominates Grand Rapids City Commission meeting

City commissioners approved a proposal to create three civilian positions within the GRPD, which would reallocate about $400,000 of the budget.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A proposal to reduce the Grand Rapids Police Department's budget to the city charter minimum of 32% of the general fund dominated two city meetings on Tuesday. 

The approved budget for fiscal year 2021 allots over $55 million to GRPD, which is 38.6% of the city's general fund.

For hours the Grand Rapids City Commission and members of the public discussed this topic, which broadly falls under the idea of defunding police, a nationwide call for reform. Despite all the discussion, the topic was not voted on during Tuesday night's meeting, and city commissioners expressed frustration about the motion not being added to the agenda.

However, the commission did approve a proposal to add three civilian positions to the police department, including in the Office of Oversight and Public Accountability. This will shift nearly $400,000 from the department's budget to go toward the three positions that the department had originally sought additional funding for.

Commissioner Milinda Ysasi motioned to lower the budget by about $9 million during Tuesday morning's committee of the whole meeting, which lasted hours. The commission ultimately decided to discuss and vote on the motion during the evening meeting. But shortly before the meeting, the city attorney advised against making such a major amendment to the budget. 

"What you the commission does not have the authority to do, is unilaterally amend the city manager's proposed amendments for the 2021 approved budget. The commission does not have the authority to unilaterally reduce total departmental appropriations contained in the 2021 approved budget," said attorney Anita Hitchcock. 

Ysasi, Commissioner Senita Lenear and Mayor Rosalynn Bliss all expressed frustration over the last-minute news that the commission is limited in the actions it can take on the budget. Lenear noted the topic of reducing the police budget to the 32% level has been a topic of discussion in the community for the past month. 

"I'm challenged with the fact that I'm hearing this, this late in the game," she said. "And obviously you didn't just start talking about it this late, but just before this 7 p.m. meeting. That should have been something, in my opinion, that should have been communicated to the public, to this commission repeatedly so that we would be aware of what was it what was within our authority and what is not."

Lowering the police budget to the city charter minimum has been a topic in the city following several weeks of protest calling for police reform that were sparked by the death of George Floyd in May. 

Ysasi said she was not going to move forward with her motion because she was hopeful there would be more discussion and she didn't think it would be responsible to continue with it at this time. 

"I think, quite honestly if we would have known that on our June 2 meeting, we would create different expectations for our community about what is realistic, what are the opportunities in front of us," she said about what the commission can do to amend the budget. 

Ysasi said she plans to get a second legal opinion about the commission's ability to make changes to the budget and her motion to lower the police budget. 

City Manager Mark Washington said the proposal to create three civilian positions, one chief of staff, one public information officer, and one in the OPA was a responsible first step. 

"Not that there would not be future changes that could result in the budget implications but that was something that staff was not prepared to," he said. 

Commissioners Lenear and Ysasi voted against the proposal. Lenear said she wanted to voted on a more comprehensive plan. 

The commission meeting lasted until past 1 a.m., and city leaders heard from more than 100 people during the first portion of the meeting which is dedicated to public comment. Nearly every caller discussed the issue of police funding. About half spoke in favor of lowering the police budget and reallocating funding to other services, and the other half disagreed with this idea.

One of the night's callers was Cle Jackson, the president of the Grand Rapids chapter of the NAACP. He called in to ask the commissioners to stand up for righteousness and lower the budget to 32% of the operating fund. 

"This is not about destroying the Grand Rapids Police Department. It is about reallocating resources that support community programming and community health of the city," said Jackson. 

He said the official position of the Grand Rapids NAACP is to reallocate funding from the police department to programs that support the community. 

One caller who spoke against lowering the police's budget, said it could result in delayed response times and fewer officers on the street. 

"We need to work with our police, and we need to make changes because brutality has to end," said Michael, who only gave his first name. "But I want to say that I am against the defunding because that is not the solution." 

The whole meeting can be seen here:

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