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What we learned from Minneapolis’ 2020 budget

On Wednesday, the Minneapolis City Council finalized a $1.6 billion budget for the coming year a plan that includes the biggest increase to the city’s property tax levy in 10 years.

Minneapolis City Council
The vote Wednesday caps months of meetings and budget hearings between department leaders, council members and community members about the city’s spending priorities.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

On Wednesday, the Minneapolis City Council finalized spending for the coming year a plan that includes the highest increase to the property tax levy in 10 years and to aim at some of the city’s biggest issues: affordable housing, crime and economic disparities.

The vote Wednesday caps months of meetings and budget hearings between department leaders, council members and community members about the city’s spending priorities. Here are some things we learned from this year’s budgeting process:

1. The mayor’s message about the budget never really stuck

Back in August, Mayor Jacob Frey outlined the highlights of his 620-page budget proposal, which totaled $1.62 billion. The plan called for an increase to the city’s property tax levy — the total amount of property tax the city will collect — by roughly 7 percent. 

Frey touted economic inclusion as his main goal of the spending plan, emphasizing “cultural districts” and efforts to help business leaders of color. He called his budget plan an outline of “specific solutions that undo the legacy of institutionalized exclusion of Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and immigrants and furthers the economic and social independence of these communities.” 

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But that theme soon got lost amid calls from activists urging the city to divest resources from the Minneapolis Police Department, with groups interrupting Frey’s initial announcement. 

In public hearings and press conferences, activists — namely members of the advocacy group Reclaim the Block — shared personal stories for why they disagree with Frey’s plan to grow MPD’s budget: specifically his proposal to add 14 new officers in 2020. 

At the same time, downtown business leaders and other residents called for the City Council to grow the police force beyond what Frey had proposed to improve public safety. 

Last week, the council and Frey attempted to find a middle ground between the two camps, agreeing to expand the city’s number of MPD recruits next year, while keeping the department’s force the same size. Council members agreed to expand the city’s number of officers in training by almost one-third, which means 114 cadets could rotate through police training in 2020 as opposed to the usual cap of 76. At the same time, the council increased the city’s investment in alternative public safety strategies by more than $540,000. 

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At the council’s final budget hearing on Wednesday, almost 50 people addressed council members before their final vote on the budget, with many taking aim at that compromise. “I think you should get rid of it, all of it,” Sagirah Shahid, a member of Reclaim the Block, said of MPD. “Our youth are traumatized, especially our youth of color.”

Shortly after the council’s final vote Wednesday night, however, the mayor sought to return to his original theme; his office released a press release touting the budget’s “Emphasis on Economic Inclusion.”

“This budget advances a vision for a more inclusive Minneapolis that grows through stronger partnerships with communities and businesses of color,” Frey says in the statement. “This year marked major accomplishments but, more importantly, set the stage for results in 2020.”

2. Even so, Frey got almost everything he wanted

The amendment to add funding for an additional cadet class for MPD next year — as well as establish stable funding for the officers-in-training going forward — was the biggest change to the 2020 budget proposal after Frey’s initial announcement. 

But the council otherwise adhered closely to Frey’s initial spending plan, with a budget that includes more millions of dollars to make streets cleaner, develop commercial buildings and help existing local business owners in the cultural districts — areas of Minneapolis where the majority of residents are people of color and where there’s a high concentration of low-income households. The districts identified in Frey’s plan are northeast’s Central Avenue, north Minneapolis’ West Broadway, Cedar-Riverside, Franklin Avenue, Lake Street and 38th Street.

“I think that this is a very good budget,” Council President Lisa Bender said Wednesday, touting the plan’s focus on enforcing new workplace laws and mitigating climate change. “We’ve moved on from debating some fundamental things that even a few years ago weren’t accepted as mainstream.”

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Yet Bender also said she doesn’t think the budget goes far enough to invest in alternative strategies to traditional policing. “We are investing too much money in incarceration-based policing and not enough money in community-based safety,” she said. “I think the police department needs a complete overhaul of its budget.”

Other council members echoed that sentiment, highlighting the city’s investment in the recently established Office of Violence Prevention. The office, which the city created in last year’s budget cycle, is a one-stop shop for public-safety programs that uses civilian staff via the city’s health department. Specifically, city leaders agreed to boost funding for a program that connects gang members with social services called Group Violence Intervention, as well as a new initiative that aims to connect domestic violence offenders with social services. 

“A lot of work has gone into building the foundation that we see here in this budget that is opening up the door for us to continue to build a more comprehensive approach to public safety,” Ward 4 Council Member Phillipe Cunningham said.

3. Addressing housing issues remains a priority

Building upon the city’s 2019 budget that committed a record high of $40 million to increase residents’ access to affordable housing, the final spending plan for 2020 pumps an additional $31 million toward programs with the same goal.

Those initiatives include tenant legal services and tax incentives for landlords to keep rents stable, as well as funds to help nonprofit developers preserve what’s called “naturally occurring affordable housing,” or NOAH. 

This year, city leaders also agreed to add a new city staff position to help tenants navigate leases, fees and negligent landlords; to spend $75,000 on boosting security in public housing, and to set aside money from the city to aid efforts by Hennepin County’s Office to End Homelessness.

Additionally, Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents Ward 5 and has led efforts to strengthen renter protections over the past year, proposed spending money so the city can study whether rent control makes sense for Minneapolis. “Rent control will not solve all of the problems that are related to the housing crisis, but it is one strategy that a lot of cities are leaning in to,” Ellison said. 

Funding for that proposal, along with a couple others, came out of money Frey had set aside for north Minneapolis’ Village Trust Financial Cooperative, a black-led credit union that city leaders have touted as an up-and-coming tool for addressing the city’s economic disparities. In the 2019 budget, the city set aside $500,000 in taxpayer money on condition that Village Trust Financial meet certain conditions. 

That hasn’t happened yet, which means the credit union hasn’t received the $500,000, most of which is a forgivable loan, said Ellison. He said the city is extending its contract with the group that’s developing Village Trust Financial. “We think … there’s a real strong likelihood that they’re going to course correct,” Ellison said.