Iowa City City Councilor to suggest an amendment to police budget

City Councilor Laura Bergus plans to suggest an amendment to the city’s FY2024 budget to use increased police department budget funds for other public safety initiatives.


Cody Blissett

Iowa City councilmember Laura Bergus looks down during a meeting in Iowa City on Tuesday, March 7, 2023.

Isabelle Foland, News Reporter

Iowa City City Councilor Laura Bergus is pushing for major changes to money slated for the Iowa City Police Department for the next fiscal year’s pending budget.

Bergus will propose a budget amendment that would use funds designated for the police department to finance other public safety efforts at the April 4 city council meeting.

In an essay posted by Bergus on her website in February, she stated that she feels this shift in funds is necessary to align more with Iowa City’s values outlined in their strategic plan, such as increasing public safety not defined by law enforcement, shared power, and accountability.

Currently, the Iowa City Police Department has 79 full-time police officers employed, and the maximum number of full-time officers they are authorized to hire is 84. Bergus plans to request the city not to increase the police budget or hire new officers. This would instead move the funds into a reserve line so the city can decide together where exactly to put the money.

“This would be a shift of over $1 million,” Bergus said.

Bergus wrote that allocating more funding to organizations, such as CommUnity Crisis Services and Shelter House, would create an environment where police intervention would not be needed because potential hostile situations would be curbed by the services these organizations provide.

In an interview with The Daily Iowan, Bergus said she first brought up this plan to the council during the Jan. 7 budget work session, but she had talked to the city manager and the police chief about it a few months before that.

“I really think it was important to make sure they understood where I was coming from and to have a heads up because this could be very disruptive for them,” Bergus said. “I think that’s necessary that we all try and be working together.”

Iowa City Police Chief Dustin Liston said he feels the police budget needs this increase because of staffing struggles the department has faced.

“Since I’ve been here and we’ve opened up hiring, we take applications all year round, which is something we hadn’t done, and we’re still having a hard time getting to the staffing levels that were authorized,” Liston said. “That just creates a giant strain on our workforce. We have officers that are forced to work overtime, forced to work extra shifts; we had 18,500 hours of overtime last year.”

Liston added that this strain is unfair to the officers and the public because it’s difficult for overworked and stressed officers to perform at their best.

RELATED: Iowa City city officials concerned about future budget cuts

Bergus wrote in her essay that increased police presence in the community would not necessarily lead to an overall feeling of safety.

“Police have certain tools and roles. Many of their tools are based on physical control and the threat of physical harm to obtain compliance. Other tools are lawful invasions of privacy,” Bergus wrote. “The presence of these elements in every interaction means the threat of violence, even for the best-intentioned officers.”

Liston said an increased police presence in the community is necessary to build stronger bonds and trust between community members and police officers.

“Sometimes we will hear people talk about reducing officer-initiated activity; well, that’s reducing officers’ opportunities to have positive interactions and build relationships,” Liston said. “I don’t want people to be in fear of the police department, but they’re not going to gain that trust if we are not allowed, and we don’t have the appropriate staffing to have time to have those positive interactions.”

Despite their disagreement on the issue of the budget amendment, Liston said he supports Bergus’s ideas to fund other public safety initiatives.

“I don’t disagree with everything that she’s proposing. I don’t think it needs to be one or the other, or it has to be at the expense of public safety. I am open to trying anything,” Liston said. “My job is to ensure the safety of the public in Iowa City, and I’m open to ideas.”

City of Iowa City Attorney Eric Goers said the motion to make an amendment would most likely be made orally, which will then need to be seconded and voted on by the entire council.

A budget amendment being made at a public hearing for the budget is somewhat rare, but it is not uncommon for a budget to be amended after it has been finalized and approved, Goers said.

The public hearing for the fiscal 2024 budget will be held at the Iowa City City Hall on Tuesday, April 4. There will be an opportunity for the public to comment on the budget during the public hearing.