It was over pretty quickly. By a 6-1 vote, the St. Paul City Council overrode a line-item veto of the budget by Mayor Chris Coleman. Back in was $345,000 for evening library hours that had originally been victim to cuts made during the Great Recession.
In fact, the council members did it twice, and all in about 10 minutes time — first as members of the city’s Library Board and then as the city council.
Yet as decisive as the vote was — only Council Member Dave Thune voted to uphold Mayor Chris Coleman’s veto — it wasn’t immediately clear whether it would matter. Could the mayor, the council wondered, simply refuse to spend the additional money for its stated purpose?
“My hope would be that he would spend the money, that clearly this was a huge priority of the council,” said Council President Kathy Lantry.
She needn’t have worried. Shortly after the meeting ended, Coleman’s communications director Tonya Tennessen released this statement: “Our understanding is that when the Council appropriates money with specific purposes outlined, we have to spend the money accordingly. They have made their intention clear by overriding the Mayor’s veto. So while we are forced to appropriate the money in this case, the Mayor still believes this is not only fiscally irresponsible, but it is doing a disservice to the residents of Saint Paul who expect and deserve consistency and stability in our library hours.”
Tennessen went on to predict that the added hours could well be cut the following budget year when the city projects a budget deficit of $10 million.
And that was really the issue: how the hours were funded, not that they were added. The council found the money by directing money from the city parking fund into a fund to pay for parking meter repairs and maintenance. That freed up general fund money to pay for adding back Tuesday and Thursday evening hours at city libraries.
As logical as it sounded to spend money from the parking fund on a parking-related expenses, Coleman objected because it was using what is considered one-time money that might not be there in the future for an ongoing expense. He said he feared the city would hire extra library staff and add hours only to have to lay workers off and cut hours when it all becomes unsustainable later.
In his veto letter to the council, Coleman wrote: “Had the additional hours been paid for by a stable and permanent revenue source — perhaps by cutting in other areas — I could have supported such a change.”
Coleman also reminded council members that such funds are often used for one-time expenditures such as economic development projects in each of the seven council wards. “Taking away this flexible source limits our ability to do vital projects across the city that could lead to job growth and revitalization in neighborhoods throughout St. Paul,” he wrote.
The source of money also was why Thune said he voted against the override. The library as a separate legal entity has its own source of tax revenue. He doesn’t favor moving money from general government to the library for operating costs.
Thune joked that some might think his motivations displayed a lack of love for kids and libraries. But he said he had supported the libraries in past votes. “A lot of my friends are disappointed,” he said of his decision. “But I explain it to them and they don’t hate me.”
St. Paul’s budget of $515 million brings with it a 2.4 percent increase in the property tax levy. And except for the library hours, Coleman and the council agreed on nearly everything.
The budget includes several of Coleman’s initiatives, including adding paid parental leave for city employees and alterations in street reconstruction, give more money to arterials and funding to repair the so-called “Terrible 20,” the cities most-damaged roads. The budget maintains the number of police officers and firefighters.