As Madison takes up a 2021 city budget battered by coronavirus-related shutdowns, the city’s police union is refusing to accept cost-savings measures pushed by the mayor, and police supporters are warning that the upshot next year could be fewer officers on the street just as the city is experiencing a sharp uptick in violent crime.
While the police department’s budget would increase by about 3.2% to $88.4 million next year under Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway’s proposed spending plan, that’s considered the “cost to continue” current services and mostly reflects negotiated wage increases for police officers.
The budget still cuts the number of sworn officer positions from 483 to 479 to account for the Madison School Board’s decision this year to end the district’s school resource officer program that placed one officer in each of the district’s four main high schools. And the mayor wants Madison’s police union to reopen its contract to take a cheaper heath insurance plan and a smaller raise than what was negotiated by the past administration.
The latter changes would save the city about $1 million, according to the mayor’s office, or a percentage cut that is in line with cuts to many other city departments. Without the changes, the savings would have to be achieved through “eliminating positions as they become vacant through the first quarter in 2021,” according to the proposed budget.
The Madison Professional Police Officers Association, though, argues that as part of contract negotiations under former Mayor Paul Soglin’s administration in 2018, officers agreed to go without a pay raise for most of that year and to start paying more toward their health insurance, such that the city will go from paying 100% of officers’ premium costs now, to 88% of those costs beginning in December of next year.
“The MPPOA has already made concessions associated with this contract in its current form,” the union said in a statement released Saturday in response to what it called “the mayor’s convenient revisionist history and imperious demands.”
The mayor’s office on Monday released its own statement saying that budget constraints are forcing the public to “accept reduced service levels” and nonunion employees to take two to four furlough days. It says the firefighters union has already volunteered to accept health insurance concessions that would put firefighter health care costs in line with those of other city employees.
“In a time when every single concession makes a great impact overall, it is more important than ever that we learn to work together for a more resilient Madison,” the statement says. “I invite MPPOA to continue conversations with us to achieve this goal.”
Each side accuses the other of failing to negotiate in good faith.
Year of unrest
Madison has seen a sharp uptick in gunfire this year and has already tied its record for most homicides in a year, at 11. After the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May, the city also saw near-daily street protests for racial equity and police reform for much of the spring and summer, requiring officers to direct traffic. A minority of protesters also engaged in looting and other property destruction, causing damage to businesses and other property up and down State Street and on the Capitol Square.
“The fact that many of these protests have focused on dismantling one of the nation’s most progressive and dynamic law enforcement institutions, the Madison Police Department, is not lost on us,” the union said in its statement.
It’s not clear what further cuts to the department would look like if the police union refuses to reopen its contract.
In a Friday blog post, acting Chief Vic Wahl points to a budget amendment passed by the city Finance Committee last month that reduces the size of the police recruit class and effectively increases the department’s budget shortfall to $1.25 million. He says holding positions vacant, reducing the number of officers hired and furlough days for officers are possible ways to absorb the cuts.
“Any of these will adversely impact the ability of MPD to deliver service to the community,” he writes.
Critics of police note that the department’s budget is the largest of any city agency and that money should be redirected from the police to mental health and other services that could address the root causes of crime. Police supporters and some police say they have no problem shifting some police duties to civilian responders but worry about doing so without a plan and amid the increase in crime.
The Finance Committee in October rejected a proposed amendment that would allow the city to accept $230,528 in federal funding to hire four police officers but would require a $117,052 city match. Proponents of the measure have reintroduced it for consideration by the full City Council this week.
The council is dominated by progressives and has generally supported activists’ calls for cuts and reforms to a city police department that’s long been lauded for its community-focused approach to policing.
In September, the council overwhelmingly approved the creation of an independent police monitor and civilian police-oversight board that in its first year will cost at least $482,000 but will not have any ability to fire or discipline officers — powers that, under state law, remain with the city’s Police and Fire Commission.