Denver budget cuts due to migrant crisis face more scrutiny as recreation centers reduce hours

TDP L REC CENTERS 038

Austrum Ferguson heads out of Denver’s Carla Madison Recreation Center after playing basketball in Denver on Feb. 20, 2024. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Budget cuts aimed at offsetting the city’s spending on shelter, food, bus tickets and other support for new-arriving migrants hit Denver’s 30 recreation centers this week in the form of slimmed-down hours.

Those cuts could be harbingers of more painful budget-slashing to come as the city grapples with how to support newcomers in the wake of a federal border deal — and the prospect of financial support to cities — falling apart.

The most visible impact so far came Tuesday as several rec centers moved their opening times later, curtailing or eliminating early morning hours. At the Athmar Recreation Center in southwest Denver, that meant opening at 7 a.m. Tuesday instead of 6 a.m. — though some other centers now don’t open until 9 a.m.

The slightly later start wasn’t a major inconvenience for nearby Ruby Hill resident Sonia Herrera, who wrapped up a visit to the Athmar center just after 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. Her husband is bummed, though. He likes to get in an early workout before the center gets busy and his workday begins, she said.

A more painful change will come on Sunday when the center will be closed entirely instead of offering afternoon hours. Sundays are “family days,” Herrera said. She and her husband often take turns playing basketball or swimming with their 9-year-old son while the other works out.

With their discounted neighborhood membership, it’s an affordable outlet for weekend fun and activity.

“Money is tight, so it was nice to have a place to just have access,” Herrera said.

She is not holding the reduced hours against migrants, many of whom are fleeing political and economic strife in Venezuela. Herrera’s parents immigrated from Mexico and were greeted with opportunities here in the U.S., she said.

“I am grateful they are being helped,” she said of the migrants. “I wish I could do more for them.”

Reduced rec center hours have been bundled with rolling, week-long closures of four of the city’s five Denver Motor Vehicle offices, forthcoming cuts to spring parks and rec programs, and other small changes to DMV and parks services as part of a budget-reduction package aimed at saving the city $5 million, Mayor Mike Johnston announced earlier this month.

For most recreation centers, the cuts mean reduced hours on the days they’re open. But regional centers — the largest, including Carla Madison and Central Park — are closing one day a week.

Johnston emphasized at a news conference on Feb. 9 that “there would not be a crisis” in Denver if Republican congressional leaders in Washington had not scuttled a bipartisan deal that would have provided migrants with work authorization and supported cities in their efforts to integrate them.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Denver was sheltering more than 2,800 migrants in hotel shelters. That’s almost six times as many new arrivals in city shelters as the 500 or so the city was supporting when Johnston was inaugurated in July, though the total has ebbed and flowed since large numbers of migrants began arriving in late 2022.

Johnston has repeatedly warned that the city is facing a budget deficit of up to $180 million in 2024 due to the crisis. That’s a figure that would require much deeper digging than a $5 million haircut from the parks and motor vehicle departments.

But it is a worst-case scenario, administration officials acknowledge.

“The projection was arrived at in early January when the city was experiencing a very high, sustained influx of newcomers and we were evaluating our length of stay policy,” Johnston spokeswoman Jordan Fuja said in an email last week. “The city expects to refine its 2024 projections based on these shifts; however, we are not at that point yet.”

The pace of arrivals — at times driven by buses of migrants sent to Denver by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — isn’t the only factor dictating estimates, Fuja noted.

After several months of allowing migrant families to stay in city-funded hotel shelters indefinitely during winter cold snaps, the administration earlier this month reinstated length-of-stay limits. Families may now stay in shelters for only 42 days. Individuals without children may stay for two weeks before they must find other arrangements.

Crisis has been costly, but cuts have drawn criticism

The city estimates it has spent $42 million on the crisis so far, dating back to December 2022 when the first busloads of people started arriving from the southern U.S. border.

Of that, more than $8.1 million has gone to paying for hotel rooms and other facilities, $6.3 million has gone to pay for migrants’ bus tickets to other destinations as well as other transportation costs, and nearly $17.2 million has paid for staffing, according to a breakdown provided by Fuja.

The administration expects that number to jump by another $14.3 million shortly when the city pays off outstanding invoices from its hotel provider, rectifying a clerical error that disrupted payments last year.

City Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore has been a vocal critic of the Johnston administration’s bookkeeping. She resigned as chair of the council’s safety and housing committee in November in part over what she felt was a lack of transparency around the administration’s spending on the mayor’s House 1,000 homelessness initiative.

Her skepticism hasn’t waned with the migrant crisis.

She said making financial decisions based on the city’s worst-case scenario was “troublesome when you’re trying to right-size shifting priorities in our budget.”

She is already hearing from nonprofit organizations in her far-northeast Denver district that are worried about the possibility that the city will not renew their contracts if the belt-tightening persists.

“This is a delicate balance, and I’m concerned with the directions the administration is going,” Gilmore said. “We’re talking about foundational neighborhood support.”

Those concerned leaders include Angie Rivera-Malpiede, a former Regional Transportation District director who now runs a nonprofit that operates the popular Denver Connector micro-transit shuttle programs that serve people in the Montbello neighborhood and in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.

She recently learned from the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, or DOTI, that contracts with transportation management associations were under review and may not be renewed amid the budget crisis, she said. Right now the Connector program is funded through October.

Rivera-Malpiede said rides on the Connector shuttles are free and could benefit migrants who find housing or jobs in the north Denver neighborhoods the program serves. But for now, she is worried about the potential impact on long-term residents, especially older people who have come to rely on the rides.

“This program itself is so extraordinarily successful because it is a program of the community and for the community in an area that has for years lacked service,” she said. “This program needs to be there for them. It absolutely does.”

DOTI spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn confirmed Tuesday that several contract renewals with transportation management associations have been paused while the department engages in “a broader discussion about budget savings for 2024,” though no decisions have been made.

The Connector’s contract, which is about eight months from expiring, is not among those paused at the moment, Kuhn said.

“They are taking away” services for kids

The prospect of the Montbello Recreation Center being closed on Saturdays beginning this week worries Dianne Cooks, a Montbello resident for four decades. She also is the executive director of Families Against Violent Acts, an organization dedicated to supporting families impacted by violence.

“Saturday kids don’t have school. They look forward to going to the rec center and watching basketball inside and outside. That keeps them from getting into trouble,” Cooks said of the changes. “And they’re being limited. They are taking away what we have really pushed our young people to do.”

Cooks emphasized that she wants migrants to feel welcome in Montbello as they try to establish themselves in a new country and enroll their children in schools. When her organization hosts its annual summer resource fair in June, she said, all information will be provided in English and Spanish.

Johnston said he knew the recreation center cuts could be painful for lower-income families with fewer resources for child care and services.

The administration arrived at its cuts after weighing the impact through an equity lens, he said at that Feb. 9 press conference. That meant preserving days of operation at neighborhood rec centers that already were open only six days per week because those centers are often located in neighborhoods populated by “kids with the greatest needs, where we know that if we reduce their access to positive things to do, the risk of them getting into additional challenges goes up.”

Sonia Herrera said she felt bad for the staff at the Athmar center.

Denver Parks and Recreation employs 161 people full time, and nearly 1,400 on a part-time or on-call basis in its recreation division, spokeswoman Yolanda Quesada said. Many of them face the prospect of reduced hours, and Johnston said some on-call contractors may not get work this year.

“There are so many things wrong with the world,” Herrera said. “And it sucks that lower-income people keep being affected.”

This story was originally published by The Denver Post, a BusinessDen news partner.

TDP L REC CENTERS 038

Austrum Ferguson heads out of Denver’s Carla Madison Recreation Center after playing basketball in Denver on Feb. 20, 2024. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Budget cuts aimed at offsetting the city’s spending on shelter, food, bus tickets and other support for new-arriving migrants hit Denver’s 30 recreation centers this week in the form of slimmed-down hours.

Those cuts could be harbingers of more painful budget-slashing to come as the city grapples with how to support newcomers in the wake of a federal border deal — and the prospect of financial support to cities — falling apart.

The most visible impact so far came Tuesday as several rec centers moved their opening times later, curtailing or eliminating early morning hours. At the Athmar Recreation Center in southwest Denver, that meant opening at 7 a.m. Tuesday instead of 6 a.m. — though some other centers now don’t open until 9 a.m.

The slightly later start wasn’t a major inconvenience for nearby Ruby Hill resident Sonia Herrera, who wrapped up a visit to the Athmar center just after 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. Her husband is bummed, though. He likes to get in an early workout before the center gets busy and his workday begins, she said.

A more painful change will come on Sunday when the center will be closed entirely instead of offering afternoon hours. Sundays are “family days,” Herrera said. She and her husband often take turns playing basketball or swimming with their 9-year-old son while the other works out.

With their discounted neighborhood membership, it’s an affordable outlet for weekend fun and activity.

“Money is tight, so it was nice to have a place to just have access,” Herrera said.

She is not holding the reduced hours against migrants, many of whom are fleeing political and economic strife in Venezuela. Herrera’s parents immigrated from Mexico and were greeted with opportunities here in the U.S., she said.

“I am grateful they are being helped,” she said of the migrants. “I wish I could do more for them.”

Reduced rec center hours have been bundled with rolling, week-long closures of four of the city’s five Denver Motor Vehicle offices, forthcoming cuts to spring parks and rec programs, and other small changes to DMV and parks services as part of a budget-reduction package aimed at saving the city $5 million, Mayor Mike Johnston announced earlier this month.

For most recreation centers, the cuts mean reduced hours on the days they’re open. But regional centers — the largest, including Carla Madison and Central Park — are closing one day a week.

Johnston emphasized at a news conference on Feb. 9 that “there would not be a crisis” in Denver if Republican congressional leaders in Washington had not scuttled a bipartisan deal that would have provided migrants with work authorization and supported cities in their efforts to integrate them.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Denver was sheltering more than 2,800 migrants in hotel shelters. That’s almost six times as many new arrivals in city shelters as the 500 or so the city was supporting when Johnston was inaugurated in July, though the total has ebbed and flowed since large numbers of migrants began arriving in late 2022.

Johnston has repeatedly warned that the city is facing a budget deficit of up to $180 million in 2024 due to the crisis. That’s a figure that would require much deeper digging than a $5 million haircut from the parks and motor vehicle departments.

But it is a worst-case scenario, administration officials acknowledge.

“The projection was arrived at in early January when the city was experiencing a very high, sustained influx of newcomers and we were evaluating our length of stay policy,” Johnston spokeswoman Jordan Fuja said in an email last week. “The city expects to refine its 2024 projections based on these shifts; however, we are not at that point yet.”

The pace of arrivals — at times driven by buses of migrants sent to Denver by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — isn’t the only factor dictating estimates, Fuja noted.

After several months of allowing migrant families to stay in city-funded hotel shelters indefinitely during winter cold snaps, the administration earlier this month reinstated length-of-stay limits. Families may now stay in shelters for only 42 days. Individuals without children may stay for two weeks before they must find other arrangements.

Crisis has been costly, but cuts have drawn criticism

The city estimates it has spent $42 million on the crisis so far, dating back to December 2022 when the first busloads of people started arriving from the southern U.S. border.

Of that, more than $8.1 million has gone to paying for hotel rooms and other facilities, $6.3 million has gone to pay for migrants’ bus tickets to other destinations as well as other transportation costs, and nearly $17.2 million has paid for staffing, according to a breakdown provided by Fuja.

The administration expects that number to jump by another $14.3 million shortly when the city pays off outstanding invoices from its hotel provider, rectifying a clerical error that disrupted payments last year.

City Councilwoman Stacie Gilmore has been a vocal critic of the Johnston administration’s bookkeeping. She resigned as chair of the council’s safety and housing committee in November in part over what she felt was a lack of transparency around the administration’s spending on the mayor’s House 1,000 homelessness initiative.

Her skepticism hasn’t waned with the migrant crisis.

She said making financial decisions based on the city’s worst-case scenario was “troublesome when you’re trying to right-size shifting priorities in our budget.”

She is already hearing from nonprofit organizations in her far-northeast Denver district that are worried about the possibility that the city will not renew their contracts if the belt-tightening persists.

“This is a delicate balance, and I’m concerned with the directions the administration is going,” Gilmore said. “We’re talking about foundational neighborhood support.”

Those concerned leaders include Angie Rivera-Malpiede, a former Regional Transportation District director who now runs a nonprofit that operates the popular Denver Connector micro-transit shuttle programs that serve people in the Montbello neighborhood and in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea.

She recently learned from the city’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, or DOTI, that contracts with transportation management associations were under review and may not be renewed amid the budget crisis, she said. Right now the Connector program is funded through October.

Rivera-Malpiede said rides on the Connector shuttles are free and could benefit migrants who find housing or jobs in the north Denver neighborhoods the program serves. But for now, she is worried about the potential impact on long-term residents, especially older people who have come to rely on the rides.

“This program itself is so extraordinarily successful because it is a program of the community and for the community in an area that has for years lacked service,” she said. “This program needs to be there for them. It absolutely does.”

DOTI spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn confirmed Tuesday that several contract renewals with transportation management associations have been paused while the department engages in “a broader discussion about budget savings for 2024,” though no decisions have been made.

The Connector’s contract, which is about eight months from expiring, is not among those paused at the moment, Kuhn said.

“They are taking away” services for kids

The prospect of the Montbello Recreation Center being closed on Saturdays beginning this week worries Dianne Cooks, a Montbello resident for four decades. She also is the executive director of Families Against Violent Acts, an organization dedicated to supporting families impacted by violence.

“Saturday kids don’t have school. They look forward to going to the rec center and watching basketball inside and outside. That keeps them from getting into trouble,” Cooks said of the changes. “And they’re being limited. They are taking away what we have really pushed our young people to do.”

Cooks emphasized that she wants migrants to feel welcome in Montbello as they try to establish themselves in a new country and enroll their children in schools. When her organization hosts its annual summer resource fair in June, she said, all information will be provided in English and Spanish.

Johnston said he knew the recreation center cuts could be painful for lower-income families with fewer resources for child care and services.

The administration arrived at its cuts after weighing the impact through an equity lens, he said at that Feb. 9 press conference. That meant preserving days of operation at neighborhood rec centers that already were open only six days per week because those centers are often located in neighborhoods populated by “kids with the greatest needs, where we know that if we reduce their access to positive things to do, the risk of them getting into additional challenges goes up.”

Sonia Herrera said she felt bad for the staff at the Athmar center.

Denver Parks and Recreation employs 161 people full time, and nearly 1,400 on a part-time or on-call basis in its recreation division, spokeswoman Yolanda Quesada said. Many of them face the prospect of reduced hours, and Johnston said some on-call contractors may not get work this year.

“There are so many things wrong with the world,” Herrera said. “And it sucks that lower-income people keep being affected.”

This story was originally published by The Denver Post, a BusinessDen news partner.

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