St. Paul council approves budget; city’s tax levy to increase 7.9 percent

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The St. Paul city council adopted the budget during Wednesday's meeting.

Things were still pretty bad when the St. Paul city council got around to adopting the city’s 2017 budget Wednesday. But it was less bad than members had thought it would be just a week ago. 

The combination of an adverse court decision and the loss of some hoped for money from the state meant that a budget plan most council members loved got transformed into one that most of them resented, with proposed improvements in parks programming, job training and even a battle against bugs at risk. 

And while the budget adopted Wednesday evening still left many new initiatives on hold — technically, they were set aside in a contingency budget that won’t be funded until later (if ever) — some budgetary craftsmanship allowed a few priorities to be put back in. 

Among the initiatives put back in were funding for Community Ambassadors, who work with young people to steer them away from trouble; two civilian police outreach workers; an increases in parks programming and hours; and a youth job readiness program called Right Start. 

It wasn’t much — a total of $755,375 in funding from a $12.3 million batch of spending that had been put on hold. But it allowed council members and Mayor Chris Coleman to have some positive feelings toward a $267 million general fund spending plan, paid for partially by a 7.9 percent increase in the property tax levy. 

“Obviously it’s a difficult budget year,” said council President Russ Stark. “While this is a significant levy increase that we’re getting ready to adopt, at the same time it’s the responsible thing to do in response to the needs for services and investment in the city.”

Both the levy and the various city budgets passed with all seven council votes.

Of the spending items added in Wednesday, Stark said: “A number of priority initiatives were time sensitive or just so critical to this body that we wanted to make sure got started right off the bat.”

Council Member Jane Prince said that despite the late budget shocks and the need to place so many initiatives on hold, “I’m really proud and grateful to my colleagues.” The restored initiatives will allow the city to “create more safe spaces for kids,” Prince said.

“The budget prioritizes investments in our work around equity and preserving our strong commitment to public safety,” Coleman said in a statement Wednesday evening.

Coleman held out some hope that when the city’s right of way program — which pays for the maintenance of public streets, alleys, sidewalks, lighting and trees, and was recently found to be illegally crafted — is redesigned, other items on his original wish list will be restored.

“The Mayor is pleased that the Council agreed to a conservative approach with regard to our 2017 budget, giving city staff time to fully evaluate any potential budget or policy implications related to the right of way program,” said city finance director Todd Hurley.

The budget process started with much more hope back in August, when Coleman presented his plan. It included additions in police staffing, parks programming, equity programs and a handful of economic development initiatives designed to grow jobs in the city.

Council President Russ Stark
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Council President Russ Stark: “While this is a significant levy increase that we’re getting ready to adopt, at the same time it’s the responsible thing to do in response to the needs for services and investment in the city.”

But an increase in local government aid for the state’s cities — an agreed upon increase that would have added $3 million to St. Paul’s share of the fund — fell victim to a stalemate between legislative Republicans and Gov. Mark Dayton. Then a state supreme court ruling called into question how the city collects its annual right of way (ROW) assessments. And the city’s legal staff is worried that to meet the court’s expectations, a new ROW system won’t raise as much as the old one, perhaps only half as much as the current $31.8 million.

The current budget problems might have been even worse had the council not bucked Coleman’s call for a 6.9 percent levy hike. Wanting even more new programs, they first voted for an 8.6 percent hike. Then, after Coleman vetoed that, council approved 7.9 percent.

The higher levy was initially intended to provide money for items such as clearing up a parks maintenance backlog. Instead, the addition revenue will go to help cover current spending.

The budget does add five police officers, growing the city force from 576 in 2007 to 620 next year.

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