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Six takeaways from St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s first budget address

Carter has proposed a range of new initiatives — from a broad plan to increase affordable housing to legal services for immigrants to salary raises for cops.

According to St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, his proposal would cost the owner of a median-value home another $76 per year, or about $6.33 per month.
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter gave his first-ever budget speech Thursday night, when he announced he wants to raise the city’s property-tax levy by 11.5 percent. That translates to $157.5 million, money that would would help pay for a range of new initiatives — from a broad plan to increase affordable housing to legal services for immigrants to salary raises for cops.

Here are main takeaways from Carter’s 2019 budget proposal, which the City Council is likely to change over the next several months. The council will approve a final budget in December.

The proposed property-tax levy hike is modest compared to last year’s — on paper
Former Mayor Chris Coleman went out with a bang: He proposed a whopping 24 percent levy increase in the city’s 2018 budget. But that came with a massive reconfiguration of revenue flow. No longer would the city rely on annual street maintenance bills in the same way, which partially offset the levy hike for property owners.

For example, a median home valued at $173,900 would have paid $791 in property taxes and street maintenance fees in 2017. That same house, facing a 7.7 percent increase in assessed value, was estimated to pay $826 this year — an increase of 4 percent.

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According to Carter, his proposal would cost the owner of a median-value home another $76 per year, or about $6.33 per month. He didn’t explain how he made that calculation.

The mayor made the budget announcement in front of a welcoming audience at Washington Technical Magnet School Thursday evening, after posting up in cafes and bars in recent weeks to gather the public’s ideas on spending and saving. His budget total of $606 million — up at least $37 million from last year — includes funding cuts in some areas and boosts for others. But the need to prepare the city for newcomers underscores all of Carter’s ideas. “We are at a critical time in our city. We are growing, we are changing,” the mayor said.

Public safety (still) gets most of the pie
Like years past, the fire and police departments take up the majority of the mayor’s budget (which is available in full via a 470-page PDF online). The plan follows through with Carter’s promise to the city’s 626 police officers for a 3.25 percent salary increase, and carves out new money for mental-health experts to work closer with police. It also boosts resources for investigations, particularly in the department’s sex-crimes unit, where Carter wants a new commander and investigators.

In his remarks Thursday, Carter made a point of rejecting a request from some businesses and Police Chief Todd Axtell to add 50 new police officers over the next two years, saying the $5 million annual cost would leave little room for other new spending. That response also follows pleas from community groups for the city to invest in areas and programs outside the police department, citing officers’ aggressive and sometimes deadly encounters with citizens. (Carter pushed police reform while campaigning for mayor last year.)

Another new idea from the mayor: Create a new team of EMTs to handle less serious 911 calls so that paramedics are free for life-threatening ones. (The city’s number of emergency calls has grown by more than a third since 2013.) The budget also sets aside money to renovate the city’s Fire Station 7 and pay for firefighter training.

The centerpiece of Carter’s plan: the “emerging housing crisis”
The mayor unveiled a sweeping proposal — totaling $10 million, and another $2 million every year going forward — to address housing affordability issues. He wants to increase density by building new rental units; invest in homeless shelters; explore new ways to cut construction costs and help people finance their homes. The sizable chunk is in line with a request by the City Council for the mayor to prioritize such spending.

St. Paul’s population hovered below 307,000 people as of last year, according to census data. But that number is climbing. The Metropolitan Council, which governs regional growth in the Twin Cities, is expecting the city to grow by about 15,000 households over the next 12 years.

The kids are making out OK
Citing troubling disparities in the city’s youth recreation programs, Carter wants to revamp the systems funding stream so that facilities can expand hours, improve transportation and help families pay fees. The new money would jumpstart programs at Highwood Hills Recreation Center and help redesign Rice Recreation Center, for instance. “Safe, nurturing recreation centers and library environments will set our children on a strong course to success,” Carter told the audience.

Another good sign for young people: Carter wants to create a new “Office of Financial Empowerment” that, in addition to giving general financial counseling, would tackle the city’s college savings account program.

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Help for immigrants on its way
He is asking the City Council to amend this year’s budget to set aside $100,000 for a new Immigration Legal Defense Fund, as well as hire a new attorney to work on immigrant and refugee issues. “Saint Paul cannot and will not be a city that does nothing while our neighbors are targeted,” he said. “This work is critical and urgent.”

Broadly speaking, though, $100,000 is pennies in the fight to prove legal status for the country’s newest residents. An immigration attorney may charge anywhere between $100 to $300 per hour for guidance, costing potentially thousands of dollars per year. Carter didn’t provide details on how exactly the city would spend the new money.

Invasive insects, small businesses and bike lanes are also on Carter’s mind The mayor’s budget sets aside $1.2 million to ease the burden of Emerald ash Borers that have been killing the region’s ash trees, and also provides money to explore new ways to lessen St. Paul’s impact on the environment — starting with LED light bulbs in city buildings.

The budget also helps programs that support small businesses, puts $1 million toward sidewalk repairs and establishes the city’s first-ever dedicated fund for bike lanes.

“I am confident that the series of smart, sensible investments in our budget proposal will help transform and retool Saint Paul to thrive in the economy of the future,while ensuring that all our neighborhoods benefit from our collective prosperity,” Carter said. “My speech this evening is far from the end of our budget engagement, it’s only the beginning.”