City Council Holds Hearing on FY21 Budget; Residents Call for Defunding of Police Force

The City Council Committee on Ways & Means held a four and a half hour virtual meeting on Tuesday regarding the FY21 budget, where the focus was hearing from the public about the proposed budget.

In light of the recent events and movement against racism and police brutality across the country, the hearing was packed with testimony from residents asking the City Council to defund the Boston Police Department (BPD) by “at least 10 percent” and redirect those funds to community organizations and programs, especially in minority communities that are typically underfunded.

City Councilor Kenzie Bok created an infographic explaining the budget process, which she has shared in her newsletter and on Twitter. On April 8, Mayor Walsh proposed the budget for FY21, and between April 13 and May 28, the Committee on Ways & Means hosted 27 different hearings on different areas of the budget, with three hearings focused on public testimony.

Bok said that on June 3, the Council took the first of two required positive votes on the capital budget, and “passed limits on several revolving funds,” as well as “rejected the operating budget without prejudice,” according to the infographic.

Right now, Mayor Walsh is reviewing feedback and input from both the Council and the public. During the week of June 15, Mayor Walsh is expected to resubmit the operating budget for the Council to review, and on June 24, the Council will decide whether or not to approve the operating budget and take its second vote on the capital budget.

Bok said that she expects the resubmitted budget to go down, but “food access, language access has become vital,” and “sometimes public safety is about social and emotional wellness.”

Bok said at Tuesday’s hearing that the Committee has received 5,500 emails with testimony about the budget.

“I am very, very grateful to the many thousands of constituents who have reached out about the budget this year,” Councilor Michelle Wu said. She said that the level of public involvement a “very important sign” that nationwide events are being localized. “The way that I’m thinking about the budget in the midst of the heightened attention…every dollar should be intentionally allocated, and go to funding a community building process that is equitable and involved,” she said. “We know that the ways we’ve been funding safety and public safety have not led to the safest outcomes for our communities.”

City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said that there historically has not been enough funding for things like mental health, Boston Public Schools programming, and substance abuse programs. “This is really an opportunity to look at that,” he said. He said that the education budget as currently presented is “identical to the one presented at the State of the City in January. I struggle to see how funding something the way we funded something pre-pandemic would help to address those issues,” he said. 

Councilor Flynn added that he has received thousands of emails over the past few days, and that he “wanted to let the public know that I’m going to be closely following what they say,” as he is particularly concerned about issues affecting the immigrant community.

“This is one of our biggest responsibilities,” said City Councilor Julia Mejia. “We hear the buzzword that the budget is a value statement.” She said that “we’re looking to see how we can increase funding and capacity for our neighborhood services,” as well as allocate some of the BPD budget to the Boston Public Health Commission.

“We need to fund more opportunities and programs around mental wellness,” Mejia said, for both youth and adults, as well as more funding for NARCAN training and programming.

For the education budget, Mejia said that it needs to be “more intentional about supporting students who are chronically absent” as well as English Language Learners.

“Race and racism are real,” said Councilor Andrea Campbell. “We have yet to…really invest in a greater way in that resiliency work.” She also said that police reform is “absolutely” something that should be invested in, as there is a “long list of policy issues.” She said she believes the money should be redirected to investments in community based organizations that support and teach anti-violence.

The Council heard from a panel of different people before taking public testimony. Fatema Ahmad, Executive Director of the Muslim Justice League, was up first, explaining that her work is “organized against the criminal organization people.” She said that the concept of community policing is something “a lot of people in the past two weeks have jumped into for the first time,” but she called it “a really slick way of marketing policing,” and is not actually as community-based as the name might suggest.

Alex Ponte-Capellan of Young Abolitionists and Vikiana Petit-Homme, a representative of a collective of over 20 young black organizers, along with many other teachers, advocates, young people, and others called for the Council to defund the BPD by at least 10 percent and allocate that money into things like schools and summer jobs in black and brown communities instead.

Petit-Homme called the ten percent “just a bare minimum” of what should be done, and also called for capping overtimes for officers, not funding military exercises, and removing police from schools.

“When you give people that much power, corruption happens,” she said. “We really need to bring the power back to the people; back to the communities.”

She said that because Boston is the nation’s only city with a youth participatory budgeting process, “I am asking that a majority of the 10 percent go through a participatory budgeting process to get direct input from the community about how to allocate the money.”

Mission Hill resident Ikraam Mohamud testified about the Boston Police conduct she witnessed at the protest on May 31.

“Historically, the conduct of the Boston Police Department hasn’t exactly been up to par and that day was absolutely no different,” she said. “I have video proof of about what looks like four or five police officers brutally beating up a man in front of the crowd right before they sprayed everybody with pepper spray. We had our hands up…and we were not touching police officers.”

She said that just minutes before that, a can of tear gas was thrown into the crowd and she heard the sound of rubber bullets. “Days after this, the BPD denied ever using tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters. This Commissioner needs to tell us if any police officer from any jurisdiction can be held accountable for this and who exactly was in charge.”

She also said she had no way of getting home because the MBTA had shut down stations in that area and were not running any buses. “I had nowhere to go, personally,” she said.

“After that, I witnessed with my own two eyes, the police officers who are trained to exercise the most restraint, push down two women to the ground who were doing absolutely nothing to them,” she said.

“There is little to no accountability within the BPD. They’re the ones who are supposed to protect us, yet somehow we find ourselves in need of someone to police our police force.”

She continued, “It is immoral and plain ridiculous to overfund our law enforcement while our schools are extremely underfunded, along with our neighborhoods. It’s time to stop militarizing these neighborhoods and start investing in our people.”

After several hours of further testimony asking the Council to direct funds away from BPD and into the communities, Bok said that “It’s been really important to be a budget chair today, and we’ve been able to hear from so many Bostonians on the budget at this really important moment. I know that the mayoral administration has been watching this entire meeting and I think it’s going to be an important conversation that we have in the next few weeks how…we have a budget for the City of Boston next year that really meets this moment.”

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