Broome County’s proposed budget for 2021 has come under fire by local activists who highlight the lack of divestment from police to be reinvested in communities, a campaign that has been supported by those across the nation who have tuned into Black Lives Matter protests and debates.
On Wednesday evening, the Broome County Legislature held a public hearing on the proposed 2021 Broome County Budget. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hearing could not take place in person. Despite this, local activist groups, such as Citizen Action of New York, Justice and Unity for the Southern Tier (JUST) and Truth Pharm, were able to voice their opposition to the budget in a twofold action both over Zoom and in person.
Clerk of the Broome County Legislature Aaron Martin and Chairman of the Broome County Legislature Daniel Reynolds acted as Zoom moderators while participants were invited to unmute themselves, state their name and residence and provide comment on the proposed budget. Simultaneously, a crowd of around 40 community members and students gathered in Downtown Binghamton in front of the Broome County Office Building on Hawley St.
Those who spoke at the hearing claimed money should be reallocated from the local police and the Broome County Jail and reinvested to address issues like mental health, substance abuse, food insecurity and housing within the community. Mary Clark, 63, of Binghamton and federal issues coordinator of Citizen Action of New York, explained the purpose behind the event.
“What we wanted to get across is the horrible wasting of money — of our tax dollars — here in Broome County,” Clark said. “And what I spoke to was why not house people, why not develop housing for people? So, I think the message is there’s better use of our resources — putting them in to build people rather than destroy them.”
The public comments came in response to the budget’s plan to add two deputy sheriff positions while cutting 14 jobs in the departments of Maternal Child Health and Development, Clinic Services and Disease Control and in the health administration. Most of these positions have been unfunded for years, except the director of Maternal Child Health and Development and two public health nurse positions, which will be abolished in the new budget.
Right before the start of the hearing, protesters hung banners from the pedestrian bridge over Hawley Street with slogans such as “defund the police” and “listen to the people.” A police officer took the banners down less than 30 minutes later.
At 5 p.m., the in-person group tuned in to the Zoom feed via a laptop which was connected to a television screen and public address (PA) system. The district clerk and chairman allowed for the use of the laptop as a way for multiple people at the in-person rally to speak. In total, 15 people used the laptop to voice their concerns about the budget.
Broome County Health Department Executive Director Rebecca Kaufman spoke at the hearing and claimed that there would be no reduction in the number of people working in the Broome County Health Department, and no one would lose their job as a result of the recommended personnel changes. The rest of the hearing’s 28 speakers spoke in criticism of the budget, specifically the allocations to the sheriff’s department.
Many speakers, such as Salka Valerio, 35, of Binghamton, echoed the sentiment that the budget did not allocate money correctly.
“I think this budget is a reflection of a slap in the face for the national outcries that’s been going on,” Valerio said. “Everybody’s been doing plenty of marches for Black Lives Matter against police brutality, and the thing that Broome County decides to do is to put money into our justice system — that’s just a slap in the face for everybody. There’s no justice at all by putting more money into the budgets of the sheriff’s department and getting [ammunition] and bulletproof vests.”
After about an hour and a half of public comments, the in-person demonstrators gave the final word of the hearing by saying “Black Lives Matter” in unison, then chanted, “No justice, no peace” as the call ended.
Peter McEntee, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, spoke to the legislature about issues of substance abuse through the laptop. He later explained that through organizing in the community, he has seen how the criminalization of addiction and mental health does not help those who are affected, especially people of color. McEntee wants the county to reconsider its proposed budget and invest in programs he thinks will be better for the area.
“I hope they fire Sheriff Harder, I hope they absolutely do not fund two more sheriffs,” McEntee said. “I hope they take money out of that police force and put it into community efforts that are already existing — and are working — but could do so much more with a greater budget.”