Last year — amid uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic — St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter proposed a cautious budget, one that cut spending compared to the previous year.
He’s taken a different approach this year, unveiling a 2022 budget that boosts spending by almost 13 percent while looking to address both long-standing problems and issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
“While last year’s budget was about bracing ourselves against the most devastating blows of the global crises swirling all around us, our financial discipline — along with significant help from our partners in federal government — have returned us swiftly back to a point of preparedness to imagine and invest in the Saint Paul we are building for the future,” Carter said in his budget address.
As the St. Paul City Council prepares this week to consider a key element to the city budget, the maximum property tax levy, here’s what to know about the city’s spending plans — and the millions of dollars coming its way under the federal American Rescue Plan.
From austerity to ‘rebirth’
Carter’s 2022 proposal tops out at $713 million, an $80 million jump from the budget council eventually adopted for 2021, and $66 million over what the city spent in 2020.
That proposal comes with a 6.9 percent property tax levy increase, an increase of $10.58 per month for a median value home in St. Paul. “This increase reflects the reality of rising prices of everything from labor to construction materials, our expanding citywide tax base, and the costs of providing high quality public services to a rapidly growing population,” Carter said in his budget address.
Carter’s budget would restore staff reductions made during the pandemic and eventually add about 115 full-time employees to the city payroll. In fact, nearly every city department would add personnel under the budget: the City Attorney’s office would get 19 new staffers, the Fire Department 11, and the Human Rights office would get four additional employees. No city departments would see their staffing levels reduced, though the police, emergency management and technology departments wouldn’t gain any positions.
Carter also uses the 2022 proposal to kick off a five-year Capital Improvement Budget plan for city construction projects. Over the first two years of that plan, he proposes spending $32.2 million on the Hamline Midway Library, the North End Community Center and St. Paul Fire Department Station 7 in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.
Perhaps the most notable bit of new spending is a proposal to use $1.1 million to establish an Office of Neighborhood Safety, which would advance a ‘community-first’ mindset for public safety, Carter said. The idea for the office came out of the city’s Community-First Public Safety Commission, a 46-member panel that was formed last year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and tasked with reimaging emergency response in St. Paul.
The Office of Neighborhood Safety would drive “violence prevention strategies and alternative response,” said Carter, while working with the “Department of Safety and Inspections, Saint Paul Police Department, Saint Paul Fire Department, and other Community-First Public Safety partners.”
The office, with a proposed four full-time staffers, would also conduct research, collect and analyze data, as well as create a permanent neighborhood safety commission.
The $713 million total for the 2022 budget does not include money sent to the city under the federal government’s American Rescue Plan, though Carter unveiled his plans for the money as part of his 2022 budget announcement. St. Paul’s share of the federal emergency funds totals $166 million, with the city receiving half of the money in May 2021 and the other half in May 2022.
Though light on details, Carter’s plan commits most of the money to three major priorities: $40 million to invest in “neighborhood safety strategies”; $40 million on housing, specifically to support services for the unhoused as well as money for affordable and “deeply affordable” housing; and another $40 million for “jobs and career readiness” so that residents of all ages and abilities “can access and maintain stable employment opportunities with living wages,” according to Carter’s proposal.
Carter has also proposed putting $18 million of ARP toward updating and digitizing city services and another $15 million for programs that help provide financial stability for residents.
Carter is proposing spending a little less than $12 million of the ARP money in 2022, however, most of which will go toward stabilizing the overall budget after losses incurred during the pandemic. That includes $1.7 million for police staffing holes caused by attrition and over $2 million for restoration of library and parks staff and services stripped during the health crises.
Reactions to Carter’s spending priorities
Even before Carter proposed his 2022 budget, St. Paul City Council Members laid out their own budget priorities, which included money for affordable housing, community safety, gun violence prevention and an infrastructure investment plan.
Among the biggest differences between the council and the mayor is the size of the levy. The council recommended a levy increase of between 2 and 4 percent — significantly less than the 6.9 percent Carter has proposed.
“For the people I represent in Ward 7, the 6.9 percent levy increase is hard,” said Council Member Jane Prince. “And it’s hard to explain when we are receiving $166 million from the federal government.”
Carter did not make a proposal to add to the maximum number of police officers authorized in the city, and City Council Members are largely in agreement that the police force doesn’t need to grow. But some City Council Members are concerned that attrition has left the current number of officers too low.
“I think everybody, no matter where they stand on police, they recognize that we can’t continue to stress our police officers by making them go out in smaller numbers, to be on duty where we have so many more guns on the street,” said Prince.
In an appearance before Council on Sept. 1, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell made a direct plea to the members, requesting they increase Carter’s $1.7 million proposal for rehiring officers to $3.8 million — an unusual move for a department head.
St. Paul police are authorized to have up to 620 officers. Currently, the department has around 560. Part of that dip was caused by the city holding off on spending money to hire new officers last year to replace officers who resigned or retired. The lower officer numbers has meant fewer officers to respond to 911 calls, and the department has stopped most of its traffic enforcement as a result, shifting that personnel over to 911 calls.
Shannon Watson, vice president of public affairs for the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said some St. Paul businesses have hired their own private security as a result of the lighter police presence. “I’m not an expert; I’m not here to say that this amount of money is good,” she said. “Axtell is a smart guy. He’s been in the business for a very long time. He knows what he’s doing. To me, part of doing things well is hiring smart people and giving them the resources they need to do their jobs well, and then being their support. In my mind, the best thing the council and mayor can do is to listen to the chief when he says this is what we need to do.”
Council Member Mitra Jalali said that the question of how to ensure community safety has more potential solutions than either funding more police or less police. “It becomes problematic because if crime is down, police are given the credit for that and get more funding,” said Jalali. “If crime is up, police are seen as the solver of that and get more funding. It is an inconsistent and inappropriate paradigm and its not working and it costs millions of dollars.”
Jalali said that, though funding for police is needed, the city has yet to find a “balance” for funding public safety, though she did appreciate the money Carter committed to establishing the Office of Neighborhood Safety.
Council Members have also recommended a larger investment in infrastructure upkeep. Jalali said she would like to see more money set aside for maintaining streets and sidewalks, though she also said the city should “reduce the load-bearing vehicles” on St. Paul streets, which requires less street maintenance and makes way for other kinds of infrastructure for other forms of transportation. Another infrastructure investment supported by both Jalali and Council President Amy Brendmoen is money for growing trees to provide shade and prevent urban heat islands.
Plenty of ideas for using ARP money
The pile of federal money from the ARP Act provides a unique opportunity for the city to make sizable investments, and both council members and community leaders expressed excitement at the prospect of using the $166 million to make lasting, sustainable changes for the lives of St. Paul residents.
Brendmoen said she would like to use some ARP Act money to cut into the city’s homeownership gaps between Black and white residents. She said the city should look toward funding first-time homebuyer programs — as well as programs that help lower-income people own rentals themselves and become landlords.
Brendmoen also said she wants to buck potential displacement by creating home ownership opportunities for people at risk of being pushed out of their communities. She said she supports not just a down payment assistance program but also training programs that educate potential homebuyers before they make a purchase.
Jalali also welcomed Carter’s push to put $40 million toward housing, and said she is also encouraged by “big buckets” of spending on public safety. And though she said she is open to hearing about different ways to spend money on public safety, she noted she is less interested in hearing proposals that would give more funds to the police to spend it on programs “that do most of the same things over the last several years.”
“My question there is, ‘What public safety are we talking about?’ but I’m open and I’m working on it,” said Jalili.
For Jalali, the big question for using ARP money is: “How do we make sure that these dollars actually get into our least invested-in residents and neighborhoods?” Not just to respond to harms caused by COVID-19, she said, but for people in a “constant state of everyday emergency of poverty and housing insecurity.”
The council is scheduled to consider the levy cap on Wednesday. The levy needs to be finalized by Sept. 30 so that the city can send a notice to residents. Come October, City Council Members begin to go over the budget in detail before debating and implementing any changes. The vote to finalize the 2022 budget is set for Dec. 8.