Denver’s proposed 2020 budget highlights multimodal transportation with increased funding, as well as initiatives for the homeless population, while also preparing for slower economic growth.
Denver City Council will vote on Mayor Michael Hancock’s final 2020 budget proposal by Nov. 12. The mayor’s office submitted its initial budget to council Sept. 9. Council sent its comments back to the mayor, requesting approximately $6.4 million in additional funding for a variety of items in the budget.
Many of the budget increases that the council initiated were funded through surpluses available in the 2019 General Fund. These surplus funds are the result of agency budgets which came in under their 2019 allotment.
The 2020 budget proposal of $1.49 billion is only $3 million larger than the 2019 budget.
Considering the size of the budget — $149 billion spread across 18 items — the funding increase requested by council was not significant. But to those departments receiving additional funding, it can be impactful.
For Piep van Hueven, policy director for nonprofit Bicycle Colorado, the additional funds requested by city council and subsequently approved by the mayor are needed to achieve their goals of getting more people out of their cars. “We can’t continue our car-centric habits or we’ll wind up like LA,” she said.
Transportation and mobility programs received over $118 million, making it one of the largest items in the budget.
Denver Streets Partnership, a coalition of nine community organizations chaired by van Hueven, is inclusive of all modes of transportation: pedestrian, bicycling, auto and multimodal public transit.
“Activating transportation safely and effectively, including infrastructure and policy oversight, is critical,” van Hueven said. “Our current (single occupancy vehicle) percentage is around 70%. But we need to achieve a balance closer to that in Seattle, where it’s 50%."
Although the city did increase this year’s budget compared to last year, Michael Strott, deputy communication director for the mayor, said Denver’s revenue growth is starting to moderate.
“The 2020 budget proposal prioritizes investments in key areas important to Denver residents, especially transportation and mobility, while remaining balanced, fiscally responsible and maintaining healthy reserves,” Strott said.
He also said the 2020 proposal, combined with the third issuance of the Elevate Denver bonds, will mean $7.5 million next year for sidewalk improvement projects to construct more than five miles of sidewalks in the city, including sidewalk gaps. Other investments include $800,000 for pedestrian crossing improvements.
The 2020 budget proposal, combined with the third issuance of the Elevate Denver bonds, will mean $11.4 million in funding next year toward building out Denver’s bicycle infrastructure to advance the implementation of Denver Moves Bicycles, another of Denver Streets Partnership’s programs.
A notable gap in funding exists in Denver Streets Partnership and the city’s allotment for sidewalk improvements. According to van Heuven and city officials, the city’s budget will provide about five miles of new sidewalks. Denver Streets Partnership cites the need for 20 miles of new sidewalk construction. Denver’s Vision Zero program, which aims to reduce the number of pedestrian deaths in the city, also has a goal to build 20 miles of sidewalks in 2020.
Other items awarded additional funding by the mayor at the request of city council included several budget items for housing affordability and sustainability, specifically for those experiencing homelessness. Hancock approved council’s entire request for an additional $1.28 million, earmarked for four programs: storage lockers, public restrooms and hand washing stations, housing and rental support, and trash receptacles in high need areas like the Ballpark and River North neighborhoods. The total budget for affordable housing and other issues regarding homelessness is $97 million.
Benjamin Dunning and Terese Howard, spokespersons for Denver Homeless Out Loud, a grassroots advocacy organization, are appreciative but skeptical that the budget for homeless issues is adequate.
“Homelessness is frequently the first bullet point but one of the smallest allocations considering the size of the budget,” said Dunning.
Dunning and Howard said the number of new housing units and new vouchers — 775 units according to them — are far from adequate. They project the current and ongoing growth of homelessness is such that Denver will never catch up with the demand unless it allots significantly larger budgets for homeless services.
The 2019 Point in Time count for the City and County of Denver was 3,943 homeless, of whom 806 were considered chronically homeless. The 2018 count was 3,445. Point in Time is a one-day count of people homeless across the state.
Colorado Coalition for the Homeless did not respond to queries about their position on the 2020 budget.
City officials this year maintained that the new budget needed to be balanced to prepare for a potential downturn in the economy. Hancock concluded his response to city council by stating his appreciation for its input and proposals, as well as a reminder about fiscal responsibility.
“After meeting requests, our fund balance will be at 15%, adhering to the city’s reserve policy and maintaining Denver’s strong financial position and AAA credit rating,” he wrote. “Together, we are insuring wise investments while keeping true to Denver’s values.”
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