MISSOULA — A handful of advocates pushing to defund the Missoula Police Department stuck to their tenets on Monday, calling those who support police funding as little more than “white supremacists” looking to uphold systemic racism.
Advocates of funding the department, however, said the city’s peace officers deserve basic protective gear and training in accordance to the duties and dangers of their job. This year’s budget requests are well within reason, they contend.
The public hearing over the Fiscal Year 2021 budget commenced in earnest on Monday and will last through August. Revenue is on track with earlier projections and the city plans to spend down a portion of this year’s cash reserves to fund a portion of next year’s budget.
That includes $100,000 to pay for a new program aimed at bias and systemic racism and millions of dollars directed toward affordable housing and other social programs, including a mobile crisis unit.
“There won’t be an increase in property tax this year through the collection of mills,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “Because we had growth in our property tax base, our mill value is less than expected, but we did have higher than expected tax revenues.”
Engen said reimbursements through the CARES Act for COVID related activities will enable the city to maintain its budget and pursue the funding recommendations with no increase in property taxes.
While various departments are set to receive millions of dollars in annual funding, the police department has fallen under scrutiny from those who feel it should be defunded at the cost of building a social safety net.
This year’s budget proposes funding the police department at $19 million, up roughly 3.4% over the prior year. In comparison, proposed funding for the fire department is nearly $15 million, up 2.5% over the prior year.
Police and fire represent the two largest budgets within the city but for some, it’s far too much. They’ve taken aggressive actions to drive the debate, such as dismissing the opinions of police supports and picketing the mayor’s house at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
“Policing historically is designed – the basic framework – is to protect the capitalistic interests of powerful elites and to uphold a system of white supremacy,” said Andi Hoelzel. “That’s the purpose of policing. Technology isn’t going to change the racist undertones of policing.”
The police department’s budget includes a request for 2 new officers, including a downtown officer – something the public has demanded for years – and a forensics investigator. It also includes $226,000 for police training, $75,000 for body-worn cameras, $34,000 for helmets, and $75,000 for a mobile crisis response team.
Three years ago during the mayoral debate, police funding played a central role. Engen’s opponents argued that the city should direct more funding to the department, including personnel and more patrol officers.
While that debate has long since faded from public memory, supporters of the police department have begun to speak out as the budgeting process heats up. They believe the department should be better staffed, equipped, and trained.
“What Chief (Jaeson) White is asking for is a modest increase in the funding,” said Jay Stanford. “I think his requests are reasonable. As someone who pays property taxes and pays the bills, I don’t mind paying a little more to keep our officers safe so Missoula will remain a safe place to live, to work and for our children to go to school.”