With the impending November vote on the 2021 municipal budget, the mayor’s budget proposal and calls to defund the Ithaca Police Department found themselves intertwined at the Oct. 7 Common Council meeting.
The meeting began with an hour of public comment, during which local advocates outlined demands for reforms to the IPD.
The demands, which were published in a letter in early September, included immediate divestment from the of the IPD’s current budget by 80 percent, bringing it from approximately $12.7 million to $2.5 million.
Furthermore, the letter called for a commitment from city officials to continue IPD cuts over the coming years, demilitarization of the IPD, elimination of automatic and semi-automatic police weapons and the reallocation of former IPD funds to community groups such as the Great Ithaca Activities Center. The letter also included demands for reallocating IPD funds toward COVID-19 relief.
“I think as we vote on the 2021 budget, that’s a good time to be talking about where are we going to put that money that is going to replace the functions that we rely on police to do,” said Genevieve Rand, a resident who has been active in advocacy and recent protests against police brutality.
Many members of the public voiced their support of the advocates’ demands.
Mona Sulzman, who represents the Party for Socialism and Liberation in the Tompkins Antiracist Coalition, heralded the demands as a move toward “justice, well-being and self-determination in our community.”
Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said he admired advocates’ commitment to reinvesting funds into the community, but he also stressed that other influential entities in the area can be pressured for social change. Myrick noted that larger employers in Tompkins County include Wegmans, the Ithaca City School District, Cayuga Medical Center, and, dwarfing all the others, Cornell University, at 10,000 employees.
“There are folks with a much larger footprint that affects change on many levels,” Myrick said. “The money that the city government has to spend is actually a small portion of what gets spent, invested, saved, and made in our community.”
The mayor did not respond to multiple requests for comment by the time of publication.
In his proposal of the 2021 budget — which is now accounting for a $4.3 million pandemic-induced deficit — Myrick explained the already-planned IPD reforms.
The IPD reforms, titled an “Operational Efficiency Plan,” include prioritization of violence prevention, deterrence of property crime and officer wellness and safety.
Myrick also emphasized that Ithaca’s spending on police is dwarfed by other cities in upstate New York of similar size. Poughkeepsie, for instance, spends 45 percent of its general fund on policing, Binghamton spends 34 percent, followed by Auburn at 26 percent. The IPD’s annual budget of $12.7 million amounts to 20 percent of the city’s general fund.
The IPD is the second-highest funded single municipal department in Ithaca, outdone by the Department of Public Works, which has a budget of slightly over $35 million per year.
The IPD will head into 2021 with eight unfilled officer positions — positions which have been vacant since before the pandemic.
George McGonigal (D-1st Ward) said in the meeting that many of constituents disagreed with proposals to defund the police.
McGonigal told The Sun that he thought IPD employees are facing unnecessary disrespect, but, at the same time, believed that the department has “serious problems.”
“I support the IPD,” McGonigal said after the meeting. “But it doesn’t mean I don’t think we need to rethink the role the police department has in Ithaca and get back to more of a community policing environment.”
McGonigal suggested that the IPD’s relationship with the community would be improved if the department hired more officers who grew up in Ithaca, and more officers of color, adding that he is worried that defunding the department will hamper its ability to hire a more diverse set of officers. However, he did support cutting funding for equipment, such as vehicles and firearms.
In presenting his proposal, Myrick also noted community investment funds, which directs funding toward several local support organizations and programs, including the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, allowing law enforcement agencies to direct low-level offenders to community services.
Community funding also included a 32 percent increase to the Southside Community Center, which is currently on “pause,” according to a statement from Nia Nunn, Southside Community Center Board of Directors Chair.
“The ups and downs of [Southside Community Center] are not sustainable.” Myrick said. “We’ve got to find a path forward, and I believe that requires more funding for the city this year.”
The 2021 budget provides $8.6 million for the Green New Deal, including the hiring of a director of sustainability and a sustainability planner. Spending cuts to account for the deficit will also result in the reduction of hours for seven city positions and two layoffs.
Deputy city controller, manager of organization development, the mayor’s executive assistant, the Youth Bureau Recreation program coordinator and three positions at GIAC will all see decreased hours. Two GIAC positions will have increased hours.
The Common Council also passed a resolution to remove the White Settlers Monument in DeWitt Park to the Tompkins County History Center Museum.
The municipal budget will receive its final vote at the Nov. 3 Common Council meeting, and will go into effect in January 2021.