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Some commissioners in Grand Rapids want to cut police funding, but there's a limit

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Grand Rapids city hall.

At least three commissioners in Grand Rapids signaled support for cutting the police department budget during a meeting on Tuesday morning. But because of a rare provision in the city’s charter, those cuts would be limited.

In 1995, voters in Grand Rapids approved a provision to require that at least 32% of the city’s general fund must go toward police services.

A review of the city’s financial reports by Michigan Radio shows funding for the police department has been well above that minimum threshold since 2010.

The General Operating Fund itself represents only a fraction of the city's overall budget. But for most of the past decade, more than 40% of the fund went to the police department. In the city’s upcoming budget, which was approved less than a month ago, the Grand Rapids Police Department is set to receive about 39% of the general fund.

“We all voted on the budget unanimously on May 21st,” said Commissioner Milinda Ysasi at Tuesday morning’s Committee of the Whole meeting. “We were in a very different position on May 21st.”

Ysasi was one of three commissioners who said they’d support further cuts to GRPD’s budget in the coming fiscal year, which officially starts July 1.

“I would like to see us perhaps get back to that number, to get back to a 32% budget locked in,” said Commissioner Joe Jones. “I think it would be a good first step.”

Reducing the department's budget to 32% of the General Operating Fund would represent a $9.4 million cut.

Jones, who also serves as head of the Urban League of West Michigan, noted the worldwide outrage over the murder of George Floyd, and said now is a time to “re-imagine” public safety in Grand Rapids.

The budget for the next fiscal year currently includes nearly $143 million in the General Operating Fund budget, with more than $55 million allocated for the police department. Reducing the department's budget to 32% of the General Operating Fund would represent a $9.4 million cut.

Fellow commissioner Kurt Reppart said he supported the idea of re-imagining public safety in the city, but he said the charter provision limits what commissioners can do.

“To some degree, there’s not a whole lot of re-imagination possible unless we do look at that charter provision of 32%,” Reppart said. “And so, I think that it’s imperative that we have a discussion about that.”

Reppart requested that further information on the charter provision be presented at the next city commission meeting.

Commissioners met again in the evening for another meeting and faced dozens of calls from residents to cut police funding. Commissioners said they'd received 2,500 emails about the issue.

At the end of the evening meeting, Ysasi, Reppart and Jones re-iterated their support for cutting police funds. 

"I don't think it's as easy as just saying what the percentage should be right now," said commissioner Senita Lenear.

Commissioner Nathaniel Moody said he's in favor of reform for the department, but he said he's not in favor of abolishing the department, or "crippling" it through funding cuts. 

Commissioner Senita Lenear listed a number of reforms she'd like to see at the department, including possible budget cuts.

"I don’t think it’s as easy as just saying what the percentage should be right now," Lenear added. 

City Manager Mark Washington, who is responsible for bringing budget recommendations to the commission, said any dramatic change to the police department's budget won't happen right away. 

"I do not want people to be misled... that we can do this by the next city commission meeting," Washington said. "Nine million dollars is a significant amount of money to try to rebudget and it just requires careful consideration."

Mayor Rosalynn Bliss added that she supports a re-imagining of the police department done "thoughtfully and deliberately." She said the city has already been working for several years to re-imagine policing, and it’s made investments to add social workers to the department. This year, the city also created a Homeless Outreach Team between the police and fire department to help people during the coronavirus pandemic.

Bliss also noted that, regardless of where commissioners stand on the calls for de-funding police departments, cuts could be coming in Grand Rapids anyway. 

“With everything I’m hearing from the state, and with current budget projections, I expect we’re going to have to make additional cuts to our budget,” Bliss said.

The city commission's next meeting is scheduled for July 7.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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