Publicity stunt Keller’s Community Safety Department gutted by City Council
-- New Department Goes From 192 Positions To 13 Positions; $10.9 Million.
-- Projected Budget Goes To $7.5 Million, Cut To $2.5 Million.
-- Councilors toss their rubber stamp and act like real legislators--for once.
By Pete Dinelli
On Sunday, June 14, in an exclusive interview with the Albuquerque Journal and the Washington Post, and then during a June 15 press conference, Mayor Tim Keller announced plans to create a new Albuquerque Community Safety Department (ACS). The new department as announced was to be responsible to send trained professionals to respond to certain calls for service in place of armed APD police officers or firefighter. It was to be an entirely new city department that was to be on equal footing with all the other 19 city departments, including APD and AFRD, that have hundreds of employees and separate functions, tasks, and services.
The ACS as originally presented was to have social workers, housing and homelessness specialists and violence prevention and diversion program experts. They were to be dispatched to homelessness and “down-and-out” calls as well as behavioral health crisis calls for service to APD. The new department was to connect people in need with services to help address any underlying issues. The department personnel would be dispatched through the city’s 911 emergency call system. The intent is to free up the first responders, either police or firefighters, who typically have to deal with down-and-out and behavioral health calls.
On June 14, in addition to the Albuquerque Journal, Mayor Keller and CAO Nair went out of their way to make a Sunday phone call to the Washington Post so it could break the news story nationally and generate other news stories.
According to the Washington Post article:
“As calls to defund law enforcement reach a fever pitch nationwide, New Mexico’s largest city is answering concerns about its police department by forming an alternative. … Albuquerque’s plan for a new branch of public safety comes amid a nationwide movement to slash police department funding after George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis.”
Although Mayor Keller and CAO Sarita Nair did not disclose the estimated or projected cost of creating the new department, they did provide sufficient information on the personnel needs for the department during the June 15 press conference to make a projection. Keller’s Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair said a rough estimate suggested that 192 positions would be needed for the new ACS Department with 32 people for each of the 6 area commands, staffed around the clock, to respond to tens of thousands of calls a year.
Keller's plan, by my estimates, would cost $11 million a year.
But the Albuquerque City Council has finally decided to act like a governing and watchdog body, and not just for Keller's PR/reelection stunts.
On Thursday, October 15, the city council conducted its budget hearing on Mayor Tim Keller’s budget plan for his new “Albuquerque Community Safety” department. To the likely surprise of the Keller Administration, the Albuquerque City Council significantly gutted Mayor Keller’s budget plan for the new department. The council significantly reduced the Mayor’s security guard-heavy staffing proposal and is requiring detailed reporting before the department can use $1 million set aside for its operations.
The proposed Keller budget for the new department was slashed from $7.5 million to $2.5 million for fiscal year 2021. The City Council removed virtually all of the positions originally proposed by Keller. Cut from Keller’s proposed budget for the new department were 83 employees and a $7.5 million cost. The staffing cut includes 53 security personnel, 9 parking enforcement employees and 6 people from the city’s crossing guard program.
The City Council’s budget gives the department a mere 13 positions. The positions include 7 civilian employees from the APD Crisis Outreach and Support Teams, and 3 Family and Community Services Department staffers which include one social worker and 2 people who respond to homeless encampments. Three management positions are included.
The council’s budget bill creates a committee to develop a “comprehensive plan” for the department. The committee is charged with the task of determining what employee training will be required and the supervisory hierarchy. The committee will report to the council quarterly on its progress and performance measures before the department will be allowed to spend $1 million appropriated for its programming.
The council’s budget goes so far as to even gutting Keller’s name for the new department “Albuquerque Community Safety” and dubbing it as a “new department.”
According to a mayoral spokeswoman, Mayor Keller will review whatever budget arrives on his desk and said he has “no real concern” about the council’s proposal to remove the security and parking positions.
The city’s Chief Financial Officer Sanjay Bhakta had this to say:
“I think what we all agree on is that there is certainly a need for the new department and we all agree on that … Ultimately, the goals of the mayor and council seem to be the same. However, the mayor wants to do this in a rather aggressive manner.”
Keller for his part downplayed the Council’s action and said:
“We want to move fast and bold and innovative, and I think the council wants to move at a more gradual manner. … And that’s okay, so we’ll basically work with them and meet with them. And we basically have the same end goal, so I’m not really concerned about it.”
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
There is only one word that can describe the manner Mayor Tim Keller’s new “Community Safety Department” was put together and that word is SLOPPY. Two other words to describe it would be “publicity stunt.” It is apparent that the new department as reflected in Keller’s proposed budget was simply thrown together in a haphazard manner to be included in his proposed budget.
The proposed Albuquerque Community Safety Department (ACS) is a department that is supposed to be a solution to reduce APD’s calls for service involving mental health calls and to transfer such calls to another civilian department with mental health experts to deal with those in crisis. The fact that none of the positions outlined in the 2021 proposed budget requires a licensed mental health professional goes against the spirit and intent of the department. It is a department that must be equipped to respond to 911 calls related to addiction problems and behavioral health issues, or it will fail and fail miserably and may even result in a social worker getting killed.
The new department as originally proposed by Keller was to have 192 employees, Keller cut it to 100 positions and then the City Council gutted to 13 positions. The projected budget went from $10.9 Million as originally projected when it was announced by Keller with great fanfare to a Keller proposed budget of $7.5 Million. The City Council has now gutted it to $2.5 Million.
A key component of the new department is to have trained and licensed mental health care professionals and that is still missing. The ACS department as presented in the proposed budget does not address behavioral health care and long-term counseling nor solutions. Without considerably more licensed health care professionals, the new department is relegated to be a “pickup, delivery or referral” of people in crisis to take them either to jail or to a hospital. In order to be successful, the Mayor’s new department needs to deal with the city’s long-term behavioral health system needs and programs that are desperately needed now and in the future.
A PUBLICITY STUNT FOR A SERIOUS PROBLEM
Mayor Tim Keller and CAO Sarita Nair secured considerable news coverage nationally back in June when they called the Washington Post on a Sunday to first announce the new department. The below postscript contains just some of the news coverage. No one should be surprised at Tim Keller for wanting a national story given his penchant for news coverage, promoting the city and running for a second term. No one knows for sure how many other national news agencies Keller called on a Sunday to give interviews. Now that the new department has been pared down to 13, it really is not a city department and has no certified mental health professionals, a cynic would say Keller’s new department announcement was nothing more than a typical Keller publicity stunt to please his staunchest supporters as he seeks a second term.
Mayor Keller must be faulted for the sloppy manner in which his new department was first proposed and the way it is taking shape. The lesson Keller needs to learn is that just because you come up with a great idea that you know will generate press, you need to make sure all the groundwork is in fact done and nothing in the planning and preparation can be left to chance. Keller’s press conference to announce his site selection for his new homeless shelter to force UNM to accept the project is another example of the problem Keller has with his attraction like a moth to news camera lighting.
People are onto it now that Keller thinks all he has to do is hold a press conference, flash his trademark smile, and all his desires and wishes will materialize. City government just does not work that way. Keller needs to put in the hard work, as does the CAO and department heads to get anything done. You can not build an entire new city department on a “lick and a promise”, which is exactly what Keller tried to do with his new Community Safety Department. People want results, not public relations.
At least the city council has caught onto Keller’s ploy and is now demanding a more thought-out approach, no doubt to the chagrin of Mayor Keller, but then again Keller already got the news coverage he wanted with his publicity stunt to deal with a serious problem.