- The “defund the police” movement seeks to reprioritize municipal budgets to enable non-police agencies to deal with societal problems as a strategy for reducing crime.
- The common practice of Michigan municipalities levying dedicated police and public safety millage will hamper the ability of many communities to effect change. Dedicated police millages are levied in 221 (12.5 percent) of Michigan’s 1,773 cities, villages, and townships.
- Dedicated millages provide a minimum funding amount below which officials cannot go, but they lessen the ability of elected officials serving local government to prioritize resources.
Police policy has gained a lot of attention since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Municipalities all over Michigan, and the nation, are looking at ways of reforming policing, including efforts to “defund the police.” Many Michigan municipalities levy dedicated millages for police and public safety, a commonly used financial strategy. These dedicated millages will make it more difficult to transition resources to non-public safety services as a strategy for addressing societal issues.
For some time, elected municipal officials and police department leaders have been in search of tools to address racial bias. They have used training programs to teach police officers how to recognize their implicit biases and take corrective actions. They have adopted policies to ban chokeholds, limit no-knock entry, and require body cameras with the hope that greater transparency will cause bad actors in the forces to use better behavior.
The defund the police movement argues that these reforms are useful, but that they do not go far enough. They argue that there are better ways than involving the police to deal with societal problems as a strategy for reducing crime. For instance, we ask police to deal with homeless populations because we haven’t invested enough in affordable housing for the poor and mentally ill.
Disinvestment in education and job training can lead to a population who cannot get and hold a well-paying job, which keeps people away from crime. Constrained resources have caused schools to reduce the number of counselors and the availability of after-school programs, allowing young adults to drop out or leave without the skills needed to be productive members of society.
A shortage of trained social workers and programs to address domestic violence means police are too often called to avoidable fights in households.
Police increasingly must deal with the mentally ill because we have cut funding for substance abuse and mental health treatment.
In short, the defund the police movement argues that police are asked to do too much, and the frequency of interaction simply provides too many opportunities for confrontation, misconduct, and abuse. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
This movement seeks to divert resources from the police budgets to put more, and different, tools in the municipal toolboxes.
But, it’s not as simple as just moving money around. As elected municipal officials begin to take notice of the arguments of this movement, reform in many communities will be hampered by millages dedicated to fund police and public safety services. Because of the dedicated millages, efforts to fund these alternative services are likely to come at the expense of non-police services instead of the police budgets the movement targets.
State data show that 221 (12.5 percent) of Michigan’s 1,773 cities, villages, and townships levy dedicated millages to fund their police services, including 161 (13 percent) of the 1,240 townships and 60 (11.3 percent) of the 533 cities and villages.
These municipalities are located throughout the state. They include communities with large Black populations and high concentrations of Black residents such as Benton Township, Buena Vista, Flint, Oak Park, Redford Township, Southfield, and Warren. And they include less diverse communities that may still wish to address reform by prioritizing their budgets.
Communities have often offered dedicated millages to their voters to insure minimum levels of support and funding continuity for specific government functions. Dedicated millages are also used as a tool to raise funding for all municipal services. Municipal officials put dedicated millages for cherished services before the voters knowing they are more likely to garner support than a millage for general operations. Instead of enhancing funding, the revenues from dedicated millages often just replace what had been allocated in budget decisions. The fungibility of funding allows current resources to be replaced with dedicated resources and spending for all services increased.
In any case, dedicated millages provide a minimum funding amount below which officials cannot go, regardless of budget reductions or changes in policy priorities. In addition to the police millages, communities levy dedicated millages for a host of other public services, such as roads, fire protection, libraries, parks and recreation services, garbage collection, and many others.
The Citizens Research Council of Michigan has long argued that dedicated millages and earmarking public revenues for specific services, whether at the state or local government level, run contrary to the principles of good budgeting. Good budgeting would maintain control over all revenues and expenditures, so that officials have the flexibility to react to changing conditions. Good budgeting policies allow officials to use the budget to set policy. These principles are best met through a budgetary process with all expenditures judged on their merits and all revenues allocated accordingly.
Earmarking inhibits the ability to comprehensively look at budgets to reallocate resources. It also leaves programs dependent on non-dedicated revenues to compete for a smaller share of the budget. Budget prioritization is based on resources available from each funding source, instead of the budgetary needs of each service and availability of all resources.
Our focus has long been on state budget practices. Michigan relies on earmarked taxes more than most other states. We found that about 63 percent of revenues collected from state taxes were allocated to specific purposes before day one of the budgeting process. Additionally, our growing dependence on federal funding comes with little discretion, both for the federal dollars received and for the matching state funds put up to draw down those federal funds. Budgetary solutions to the pandemic recession will largely come at the expense of services funded with non-dedicated dollars, whether they are the highest budget priorities for the state at this time or not.
The defund the police movement shines a light on a common municipal finance practice that we think runs contrary to the principles of good budgeting. The movement asks elected officials to deprioritize the police budget and reallocate resources for public services that would address some of the root causes of crime and police calls. Whether you agree with the reforms advocated for in this movement or not, recognize that dedicated millages lessen the ability of elected officials serving local government and the state to prioritize resources.