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Friday, December 4, 2020

The Bellingham City Council meeting held online

This first budget discussion was for the Police Department budget.

A screenshot of the City Council Meeting.

By Courtney Gullet

Bellingham City Council held a budget meeting for the 2021-2022 biennium budget. In a series of budget-related meetings, the Bellingham Police Department’s budget was the first in question. 

Mayor Seth Fleetwood said this budget will have furloughs and reductions due to the economic impacts of COVID-19. This includes freezing 17 vacant positions, Fleetwood said. 

“I feel that it is a responsible budget given the times that we are in,” Fleetwood said. “It is a budget that is responsive to heightened levels of appropriate concerns and consciousness on race and justice. There is lots of money, millions of dollars, in this budget to address homelessness, mental health, behavioral health, domestic violence issues and money to continue supporting our social justice partners.”

Finance and Budget Officer Forrest Longman presented the overall budget to the council, highlighting areas the city could cut spending. With this new budget comes new investments and reallocations. Including eliminating one police officer to double investment in the Ground-Level Response And Coordinated Engagement program to $280,000. As well as adding $100,000 per year to accelerate climate action. And reassigning three officers to behavioral health officers Longman said.

The GRACE program is one of the biggest new investments laid out in this proposed budget. It is a partnership with Whatcom County and is funded by the City of Bellingham, PeaceHealth and Whatcom County, according to the GRACE program website. 

“The Whatcom Ground-Level Response And Coordinated Engagement program is a community-based effort to find solutions for individuals who are high utilizers of emergency and criminal justice systems. The aim is to offer intensive, coordinated services to these ‘familiar faces’ whose needs span beyond any single agency,” according to the website. 

About 63% of the general fund expenses are from the public safety category, as this graph presented at the meeting shows. The general fund is money that can be spent without policy restrictions and is mainly funded by sales tax. While public safety includes other departments such as fire, 34% are police expenses, Longman said. 

The proposed budget will also remove the general fund transfer to Fire and Police Pension Funds, while the property tax levy of $2.4 million a year remains committed. 

“We have been planning to reduce this general fund contribution for a few years, and it lined up at a time we needed it, which was useful,” Longman said. ”We have been adding a lot of money toward pension liability over the last handful of years … we have been adding $1.5 million mostly to the police pension for quite some time now. So, on the police side, we have got about $4 million of unfunded liability.”

The $2.4 million tax levy will have the police pension fully funded in 2-3 years so the general fund income will no longer be needed, Longman said. 

Current Bellingham resident Kiara Stiller said she thinks this budget serves as a middle ground between defunding the police department and still providing public safety. 

“Everything needs funding to thrive, with COVID-19 this is overall a bad situation,” Stiller said. “I think the city has done a great job cutting the things that were unnecessary, but keeping city life and safety a priority.” 

Chief of Police David Doll highlighted the importance of this budget transitioning three police officers to behavioral health officers. Currently, this program has one behavioral health officer, but has generated over 250 referrals. These outreach services keep the police department proactive instead of reactive, Doll said. 

“I want to address how significant cuts to our budget that some in the community have been demanding would change the level of services we currently provide to all our community,” Doll said. “If I thought these cuts would serve our community interests, I would recommend them. However, if we did this, our community would be at greater risk, and your police department would be primarily reactive.” 

Bellingham City Council will be overseeing the budgeting process in phases. The next budget meeting was on Oct. 12 to go over the fire and municipal court budget. 

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