For better and for worse, St. Paul’s capital budget process throws citizens into a sausage factory

Courtesy of the City of St. Paul
This image models the future Scheffer Recreation Center, which was fully funded in the CIB committee rankings.

Almost everyone just calls it “the process.”

“People just use the process to give them political indemnity and money, as opposed to using the process to actually figure out what neighborhoods need and want.”

The process is cool in many ways. It democratizes decision-makers who have a say in recommending how we spend our bonding dollars.”

“It felt like a lot of people put in a lot of time and energy and worked faithfully within the process, and then just had all their input largely ignored.”

Those quotes — from Dan Chouma, Noel Nix and Rebecca Airmet — describe how St. Paul spends its “Capital Improvement Budget,” about $12 million each year that funds everything from sidewalks to bridges to fire stations to playgrounds.

The old saying — “Crafting legislation is like making sausages, you don’t want to see how it’s made” — must be doubly true for city budgets. But every two years, dozens of St. Paul citizens get their hands dirty allocating scarce tax dollars.

‘The Process’ 101

St. Paul’s CIB process began in 1967, when the Legislature granted the city power to float municipal bonds, provided citizens were involved in decision-making. An intricate dance of small-scale democracy evolved.

Here’s how it works: The city’s 17 official neighborhood groups (the “district councils”) each send representatives to one of three citywide task forces: “streets and utilities,” “community facilities,” and “residential and economic development.” These groups spend countless hours listening to dozens of project proposals (pitches limited to 10 minutes) from individual citizens, organizations, or city departments. Lastly, the task forces rank every project in their assigned area.

Next a central “CIB committee,” appointed by the mayor and representing the city’s individual state Senate districts, sorts individual rankings into one ultimate list. Using that ranking, the mayor’s office releases its own list, which is approved or changed by the City Council. Finally, the money is spent. And two years later, the process happens again.

Frustration vs. learning

People who have experienced the process tend to have one of two reactions: either they’re mystified and frustrated, or they optimistically grit their teeth. After all, a lot of good ideas emerge, and some of them even get money.

Rebecca Airmet, who represented the Summit-University neighborhood on the Streets and Utilities Task Force this year (for the first time), is one of the latter.

“My involvement was really great, and I learned a lot from it,” Airmet told me. 
“I got to see a little bit of the inner workings of the city. It’s amazing to be able to ask representatives from public works specific questions. Anything you asked, the information was just seamlessly there.”

That kind of transparency epitomizes the promise of the process, which ideally brings difficult budgeting out from proverbial smoky rooms and into the public eye.

 “A lot of things go into the basket of projects to be considered: Fire stations and police facilities are next to tot lots, rec centers and libraries,” Noel Nix, a former City Council aide, told me this week. Nix is a mayoral appointee on the citywide committee, faced with the difficult task of comparing fiscal apples, community oranges and infrastructural grapes.

“It seems on the surface like a difficult position, to rank these things against each other,” Nix explained. “But hopefully the process fosters an open discussion about how best to prioritize investments. It’s certainly educational for the task force members put forward by district councils to represent their neighbors in the process.”

After a few years of seeing how the process works, some people figure out ways to get what they want. That’s how Benita Warns, who spent years on task forces representing the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, managed to get funding for bike lanes.

“The strategies involved in sports take time to learn, and its the same with CIB,” Warns warned me. “There’s only so much money that goes around, and some projects qualify for other pots of money. So the CIB committee has to balance things across the list, and anticipate what the mayor really wants.”

Good ideas lost in the shuffle

Three CIB funding requests

At the same time, for other people, the murky transparency of the process can really be a turn-off. When the central CIB committee releases its rankings every two years, big-ticket items often end up soaking up the lion’s share of the available money, leaving many good ideas behind.

That’s what happened to Dan Chouma, who pitched a $20,000 idea to build bike parking on St. Paul’s East Side into the process.

“It ranked really well in my neighborhood,” Chouma told me. “And by the middle of the process it was about 26th, right on the edge of being funded. But when they announced the [overall] rankings, the police shooting range had moved up from No. 29 to No. 5. So now there’s only room for eight other community proposals and it was cut off.”

Meanwhile in Lowertown, first-time project pitcher Jim Ivey had the same experience with his  $98,000 proposal to install tree guards on fragile young downtown trees. It’s an idea that, according to Ivey’s calculations, would “pay for itself almost immediately” in cost savings of tree replacement.

Though Ivey had served on CIB task forces before, the process still frustrated him. Like others that I spoke with, Ivey would like to see the process start to account for cost effectiveness.

Uneven playing field

Because the process pits individual citizens with small ideas against city departments with paid staff (like public works, fire or police), the budgetary deck can seem stacked.

“You have all volunteers, nominated by their neighborhood, going in and competing against people who are professionals, who are paid to be there, and have the weight of the city behind them,” Chouma told me.

That’s how you end up with a committee choosing among a park, a crosswalk, a fire station, and a city-owned bridge that might be falling down. Both Chouma and Ivey would like to see the city department budgets separated from the community projects, so that the process didn’t pit police facilities against rec centers, and bike lanes against street trees.

“Unfortunately it’s hard not be cynical about this,” Jim Ivey told me. “It’s like the hunger games. All the districts send their representatives, and somebody is going to win, and the rest of them are going to lose. But at the end of the day that’s not the real game. The real game is that they’re all pitted against the city and its priorities.”

The current CIB committee rankings

‘Democracy is rarely simple’

The other old saying — “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” — seems to apply here too. According to Scott Cordes, the city’s budget director, the process has improved over the past decade through some technological fixes, like better access to information online. And, as Cordes explained to me, balancing contrasting priorities is always difficult, whether done in public committees or in offices at city hall.

“Democracy is rarely simple,” Noel Nix said. “But these processes are critically important and it’s always important to see aspects of process where budget making and prioritization decisions get shared with a broader set of residents.”

In city budgets, as in life, no matter whether you win or lose at least you learned something.

“If my project isn’t funded, in another 2 years I’ll present it again,” sighed Dan Chouma, who still thinks bike parking on Payne Avenue is a good idea. “I try and be as patient as I can, and hope and pray it doesn’t take 25 years to do something that could be executed in six months.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 06/08/2015 - 09:47 am.

    Copycat design?

    They must be using the same architectural firm as the one who did the redesign of the newly-remodeled SunRay Library:

    I hope they got a volume discount!

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/08/2015 - 02:26 pm.

    A comparison

    …of “the process” in St. Paul and Minneapolis might be instructive…

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 06/08/2015 - 03:47 pm.

      As a Minneapolis resident, I always thought St. Paul had more direct citizen input on infrastructure projects than I do in my burg. We have, in spite of one politician or another trying to get rid of some of them (successfully with the library board), citizen boards oversee this sort of thing and the most you can do if you are not elected to one is gripe to those who were, to your council members and to the mayor whether proposing, supporting or opposing a given project in or out of hearings.

      The fact that folks can move ideas forward right into city hall with staff support and scrutiny from the mayor and council is priceless. Even if something does not get funded, the ideas and analysis is out there and if dollars should be shaken loose here or there, they might get done even if they bombed in “the process” (I could easily see East Side bicycle storage get done this way).

      A comparison is indeed instructive and our replacement for our neighborhood revitalization program is a pale shadow of what was, and not close to being as effective as St. Paul’s “process.”

  3. Submitted by Tom Clarke on 06/08/2015 - 05:25 pm.

    City of Mpls Capital Long-Range Improvements Committee

    I second the motion for a comparison to the Mpls process.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/09/2015 - 08:26 am.

    The bad news is …

    Some projects get pushed through without the knowledge or input from people who are directly and adversely affected.

    Cases in point:
    1. The clinic on Snelling avenue that’s been in business for 35 years was told that their only parking spots in front of the clinic were being replaced with a bus stop because somebody who takes the bus there was tired of crossing the street to wait for the bus. So four of the clinic’s parking spots were eliminated, half their parking spaces, because someone thought a bus stop there was a better idea.

    2. Several small businesses along Cleveland avenue, North of Ford Parkway are in jeopardy of going out of business because someone thought it would be a better idea to eliminate their customers’ parking spaces for a bike lane. Nobody even told them that such a plan was being considered! They were just told one day that their customer parking spaces would be going away.

    It’s as if the person or people who wanted the bus stop and the bike lane didn’t tell the affected merchants because they knew they would be opposed and the city didn’t think to ask.

    The merchants found out about the decision after the fact and had to launch a time-consuming neighborhood campaign to try to get the decision rescinded. And as far as I know they’ve been unsuccessful.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 06/09/2015 - 02:55 pm.

      some factual errors here

      I’m familiar with both those projects. The Snelling bus situation is part of the aBRT investment by Metro Transit, and was approved through city processes (planning commission, city council, many public meetings held by Metro Transit). The same is true for the Citywide Bike plan, which was finally passed this year after 2+ years of public engagement.

      Parking policy is more complicated than you might think! See a previous cityscape post on it here (about downtown Saint Paul, but the same principles apply):

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 06/09/2015 - 07:29 pm.

      You know what Mick says:

      You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time you might get what you need.
      472,000++ folks in MPLS “They can’t all get what they want” easy to sit back and talk about the folks that didn’t get or weren’t informed or! From the Right Wing perspective “Not my problem”, get off your lazy butt and get involved.

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