Local governments look to revise procedures in face of growing coronavirus concerns

Redwood City budget priorities questioned amid pay hikes, calls for police reform

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Redwood City’s council on Monday unanimously approved pay hikes for its top officials while lamenting the expectation of budget deficits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The council also began to address community calls for police reform in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.

Council unanimously approved 3 percent cost of living increases retroactive to 2019 that raise the annual salary for City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz to $316,104, and the annual salary for City Attorney Veronica Ramirez to $266,927. Both hadn’t received a pay adjustment since 2018, according to city staff, which added that both agreed to forgo a 3 percent merit increase and 1 percent internal equity adjustment due to the economic uncertainty.

But some in the community are calling into question the message that any taxpayer-funded pay raise sends.

“I think we really need to rethink giving people cost of living raises at a time when the people who pay their salaries are being laid off and are experiencing severe economic hardships,” said Isabella Chu, who added she has “tremendous respect” for the city manager and city attorney.

Separate from the city manager and city attorney, all city employees will receive a cost of living raise in accordance with a bargaining agreement last year tied to sales tax revenue for fiscal year 2019-2020, city staff said.

Meanwhile, the city is projecting budget deficits due to the COVID-19 shelter in place period, which will result in reduced tax revenue from local businesses having to close or run limited operations.

The possibility of cuts comes amid calls for changes in budget priorities in response to the national “defund police” movement, which, according to local supporters of the movement, aims to shift spending from police departments to alternative city services. A preliminary budget proposal for next fiscal year has faced community scrutiny for showing an increase in spending for police by $2.3 million and a decrease in overall funding of parks, recreation and community services by $520,000.

City staff said the bump in police spending was previously negotiated as part of a memorandum of understanding with law enforcement and added that, at this point, no cuts are proposed for parks, recreation and community services. The current budget numbers reportedly reflect mid-year changes that are an anomaly and will be adjusted, staff said.

With council set to vote on next fiscal year’s budget on June 22, some in the community want to reevaluate the city’s budget priorities. An email recited during public comment and signed off by 17 members of the public requested that Redwood City shift some police funding to community services, including greater investments in affordable housing.

“We should work toward a reality in which health care workers and specially trained emergency response teams handle substance abuse, domestic voice, homelessness or mental health cases,” their email said. “We should reimagine public safety to prioritize evidence-based alternatives to conflict by creating first responder teams with the training and skills to de-escalate crisis situations.”

The council defended the city’s Police Department for advancing many of the community policing tactics and strategies that protesters are demanding across the nation.

“It’s inappropriate to paint all police departments with the same brush just as it is inappropriate to paint all people of color with the same brush,” Councilmember Ian Bain said.

Councilmember Giselle Hale said the down economy will likely “disrupt our status quo and force us to innovate.” With possible cuts coming, “we need to look across every department, and policing…should not be excluded from the exercise.”

As youth have been credited with organizing local police reform actions, including the large, peaceful protest and march from Courthouse Square, Mayor Diane Howard called to form a committee of young people that can provide feedback and guidance on such city decisions.

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