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St. Paul property taxes won’t be as high as feared

St. Paul residents had some sticker shock when those estimated property tax statements went out with an overall 6.5 percent levy increase.

But when the the City Council approves the 2012 budget on Wednesday, it won’t be quite that bad. The levy increase will likely be about 5.5 percent, thanks to some “found” money in the budget.

Mayor Chris Coleman sent a press release Monday noting that there’s nearly $2 million more available — out of a $600 million budget — and that he’s proposed that nearly $1 million be used to cut taxes and the rest used to restore some cuts he originally thought would be needed.

Some City Council members were rolling their eyes at the mayor’s announcement: They’d been working on the budget for three months, and many of the mayor’s suggestions already had been identified in the council hearings. And they says it’s not normal procedure for the mayor to make such a radical adjustment to his proposed budget just two days before the final approval.

There’s even the implication the mayor was showboating a bit with those 11th-hour tax cuts.

“The mayor is good with press releases,” said Council Member Dave Thune.

“This is a little bit different than the way we usually do things, but the mayor has a right to share his opinion,” said Council President Kathy Lantry.

“But let’s not argue about who gets credit. Let’s just get it done,” she said.

So where did they find 2 million extra dollars?

Most of it, the mayor said, comes from $1.4 million from tax increment financing revenue not included in the original budget projection. The city also refinanced some bonds and got the school district to pay for some school police officers.

The school district’s agreement to pay $300,000 for police officers was the one surprise in the mayor’s new plan, Thune said. “Other than that, nothing is surprising.”

The give and take on the budget between the mayor and council has been “a little on the non-amicable side” this year, Thune said. “We were all looking for savings, and we’re likely to go with his proposed changes, and maybe go a little further.”

The mayor’s plan to restore some previously expected cuts include:

  • $298,000 to fill three vacant police officer positions
  • $184,280 for the Fire Department personnel budget
  • $55,000 to hire an additional code inspector
  • $376,000 to buy back seven library jobs and restore some morning library hours.

Those all sound good to the council, but they’re not sure why the mayor continues to call for the elimination of a five-person rescue unit at the West Seventh station. So part of Wednesday’s discussion is likely to be about restoring Rescue Squad 2. Losing the squad could create longer waits for some emergency calls, Thune said, and cause consternation among many residents.

“Public safety has always been our [the council’s] No. 1 issue,” Lantry said. “I think we’ll take the mayor’s opinions and suggestions into account, but my sense is that we’ll make his original budget proposal even better.”

That will probably include an attempt to restore the rescue squad, but making a cut somewhere else, so that the overall tax increase is very close to the mayor’s new, improved (and slightly lower) proposal.

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