Relatively good economic times make life easier for city mayors, but they don’t provide much drama for their annual budget addresses.
In consecutive days last week, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges used speeches to lay out their spending plans for 2017. Both budgets were relatively buoyant if not a bit boring, sprinkled with new spending made possible by a strengthening economy.
Not having to carve deeply into budgets is a luxury not lost on either politician. Coleman was mayor during the Great Recession and the resulting budget cuts and property tax levy increases. Hodges took office in 2014 but was chair of the City Council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee when the Legislature was carving into local government aid. She was then Ways and Means Committee chair from 2010 to 2013.
Toward the beginning of Coleman’s Tuesday speech at the St. Paul campus of Metropolitan State University, he spoke of “11 straight years of financial challenges,” before adding that “St Paul has never be stronger and more vibrant than it is today,” and “Ten years ago, it was hard to imagine the vibrancy we now see downtown.”
In her own budget address in City Council chambers Wednesday, Hodges noted that “back in 2009 and 2010, our economy was in a deep recession, we were slashing our budgets yet again, and folks were extremely worried about their own futures and the future of our city.” But she then added that if she used the “Hot Tub Time Machine” to go back to that time, “We have worked very hard for the problems that accompany growth in our city, and we should take them as a sign of success. Still, they are problems and we get to solve them.”
Police staffing … and police-community relations
Even before the November 2015 shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis, Hodges and MPD leaders have been under fire from residents who think they haven’t done enough to control bad cops. The shooting and the dismantling of a protest camp at the 4th Precinct 18 days after it was occupied ratcheted up the conflict.
Tension in St. Paul has not reached that level, but it does exist. After the governor’s mansion became the focus of protests over the death of Philando Castille in neighboring Falcon Heights, the St. Paul Police Department was criticized for its tactics in clearing the street.
Despite calls by some in the protest movement for reducing the size and scope of police departments, both mayors rejected such a response. Hodges’ budget calls for adding up to 15 officers, while Coleman proposed a more modest increase.
“I know there are those in the community who, rather than have us invest more in policing, even for community policing, instead want us to disinvest in the police department,” Hodges said. “We need a police department. We are going to have a police department. What we get to have is a 21st-century police department that is rooted in 21st-century policing.”
Coleman said his budget keeps a promise made after the death by gunfire of two residents at Indian Mounds Park in April — a promise to increase the size of the St. Paul Police Department that will give it 620 officers, compared to 576 when he took office a decade ago.
But both used the budget to acknowledge problems in policing in their cities — and to describe changes that have already been made and will continue to make, they said. “We also know that officers alone can’t address the challenges we face,” Coleman said. “We are leading the way by continuing to build strong relationships between the community and those individuals sworn to protect and serve.”
His said his new police chief, Todd Axtell, proposed creating a Community Engagement Unit, and three new hires funded in the budget plan would work to improve relations with communities of color.
Coleman has also made funding for the city’s Community Ambassadors program permanent; the ambassadors interact with young people on the streets in an attempt to steer them to services and keep them out of trouble. St. Paul, he said, is also providing every cop with training on race equity, bias and institutional racism, including training officers to de-escalate and slow down conflicts.
Hodges would add 15 officers to the city’s force — 12 regular cops plus three with special training to work in a mental-health crisis unit with two mental-health professionals. That would increase the force to 877, with a goal of reaching 901 by 2021.
Hodges’ budget continues funding for extensive training of officers — the city just announced policy changes regarding use of force and de-escalation based on an Obama administration program. And it remains one of six cities taking part in a federal National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice.
“Let me be clear,” Hodges said, “Minneapolis is leading the way in this conversation.” She said she has been assured by researchers, mayors and community members from around the U.S. that “no other city in America is putting more resources on the line, changing more policy, and transforming itself more fundamentally than we are.”
Both mayors spoke of equity programs to increase the diversity of the city workforce, including in public safety, and furthering programs to help move low-income residents and people of color into training and jobs.
But while both mayors spoke of better economic times, Coleman sounded one discouraging note — the loss of two significant employers to neighboring cities: Cray to Bloomington and app maker When I Work to Minneapolis. Coleman blamed a lack of quality and quantity of office space and pledged to put his economic development staff to work on business retention and expansion, on creating an inventory of commercial space and “where possible, we need to bring new buildings online with an eye towards increasing our workforce in St. Paul.” He also sets aside money to assist new businesses, especially in low-income neighborhoods.
“We must remember that we are no one’s bedroom community,” he said and committed to adding 3,000 jobs to the city over the next three years.
About that Local Government Aid
Lost in the end-of-session blur was a legislative deal to provide a slight increase in Local Government Aid (LGA) to cities across the state. That came just a year after House Republicans had proposed cutting aid to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. But the increase was another victim of Gov. Mark Dayton’s decision to veto a tax bill because of a bill drafting error.
The two mayors offered different approaches to the uncertainty over whether a special session will restore that bill — and the LGA hike. Coleman spends the $3 million the city expects from the increase and said he will have to make adjustments — an increase in the proposed levy, a decrease in spending, or both — if the Legislature doesn’t meet. As presented, Coleman is asking for a 4 percent property tax levy increase.
Hodges didn’t spend the $1.7 million increase the city was allocated, but she said she will use it to reduce her requested levy increase from 5.5 percent to 4.9 percent if it comes through. Part of that increase is to pay for the city’s commitment to add $20 million a year for the next 20 years in street maintenance projects and $10 million in local parks maintenance and improvements.
That’s the highest levy increase in six years, blamed partly on the roads and parks investment and partly on forecasts of a flattening out in collections of other taxes and fees.
Budgets are a journey?
Budget addresses do not lend themselves to soaring rhetoric like state of the city speeches. Neither mayor could resist an attempt, however:
“Like the waters of the Mississippi that persist over miles and over generations, we are on a journey,” Coleman said. “And as we reflect on our community’s centuries-long obstacles to equity and building an economy that brings more people into the middle class, let us not lose hope in the face of our ongoing struggle.”
“Madam President and Council Members, Minneapolis is leading the way in transforming the fundamentals of city government in the 21st century,” Hodges said. “Today we get to take the next steps along this journey together.”