COVID-19 advisory signage hangs to the entrance of a storefront in Aurora, March 24, 2020. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | In the midst of daunting budget talks, City of Aurora Budget Manager Greg Hays proposed a mock drinking game for city council members Tuesday night.

“Anytime I use the term ‘uncertain,’ you have to drink,” Hays said in jest.

But Hays’ quip illustrated the underlying challenges city lawmakers face in steering the city through financially troubled waters amid the pandemic crisis: uncertainty. 

City manager Jim Twombly submitted a $918 million 2021 city budget proposal Tuesday that would carry Aurora’s government through 2021 — and an ongoing pandemic — with some “tough decisions” to balance the budget. City planners are also looking at new ways to shore up cash. 

The city’s operating budget would decline by about 2% from about $653 million to $640 million. City council is slated to approve the final budget in October.

Despite widespread calls to “defund the police,” the proposed cuts don’t touch the fire or police departments.

But, for many other city functions, the budget talks have ushered in a lean period. 

COVID-19 and the accompanying business restrictions slammed Aurora in the spring. In 2020, the city’s general fund faced a $26 million shortfall. Budget planners coped with the gap by instituting a hiring freeze and capital spending reductions. 

In total, revenue to the city’s general fund is projected to drop from $370 million in 2019 to $352 million by the end of 2020. General sales taxes could decline from about $203 million last year to a projected $191 million during 2020, according to the city’s budget document. Lodger’s taxes, levied at hotels, have also fallen. 

For 2021, Twombly and his deputies were able to balance the 2021 budget with some expectations of slight revenue increases. City government partnered with researchers at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder to estimate the state of the economy through next year. 

Hays said Tuesday that, when trying to predict how the economy will look in future months and years, “uncertainty” is the name of the game. It’s unclear whether a vaccine will debut or whether another surge of snow or COVID-19 will keep people away from storefronts and restaurants. 

In any event, Twombly’s proposal involves spending cuts. Employees would have to weather a pay freeze and benefits freeze. Together, those measures would save about $8 million. 

In the Aurora police department, officials wouldn’t hire an additional 15 officers, saving about $2 million. 

However, cops fresh from police academies are replacing those who retire or quit the department. And funding for APD — the largest share of the city’s $360 million general fund — will be largely unchanged, in the coming years, Twombly said. 

The city will fund the Aurora Police Department with more than $129 million in 2021, up from about $128 million this year. 

Activists nationwide and in Aurora have demanded that the Aurora Police Department be “defunded,” or recalibrated, after the death of Elijah McClain, a black massage therapist, days after an encounter with police and paramedics last year. 

In the proposed budget, Aurora Fire Rescue will remain at its current funding level.

Other departments have already taken cuts or will likely see them next year. 

The public defender division, representing low-income residents in court, reduced its staff by 10% in 2020. That department is slated to receive much-needed CARES Act dollars, said Chief Public Defender Douglas Wilson. 

The Library and Cultural Services division would see a cut from an original $10 million budget in 2020 to about $9.1 million next year. Parks and Recreation plans to put off new projects for a few years. 

But this year, federal CARES Act money arrived in Aurora coffers this year by way of Adams and Arapahoe counties, contributing almost $34 million to the city. Those dollars were spent on everything from masks and gloves to small business lifelines, rental assistance programs and the city’s quarantine hotel for homeless people, which closed last week. 

One big beneficiary of federal funds is the city’s Housing and Community Development department. The office is expected to pull in more than $5 million in federal grants to advance expanded, pandemic-era safety net programs.

Jessica Prosser, the city’s community development manager, said those dollars will help advance programs sending staff to homeless encampments and helping Aurorans pay rent. 

Twombly said that, although his team submitted a balanced budget for 2021, the outlook for the following years is more grim.