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Hiring Minneapolis firefighters at top of budget list for City Council majority

They’ll find out Wednesday where Mayor R.T. Rybak ranks the issue when he delivers his 2013 budget message.

It has been nearly five years since Minneapolis last hired a training class of firefighters.
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson

Hiring firefighters is the No. 1 budget priority for most of the Minneapolis City Council.

Eight of the 13 members rank it highest, and two others say it’s on their budget wish list.

They will find out Wednesday where Mayor R.T. Rybak ranks the issue when he delivers his 2013 budget message.

“We need, desperately, a new hiring class of firefighters,” said Council Member Gary Schiff.  “We have to reverse course from managing the Fire Department through attrition.”

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It has been nearly five years since Minneapolis last hired a training class of firefighters. Last year, when the city lost $23 million in state aid, 10 firefighters were sent layoff notices. The City Council and the mayor, however, ended up eliminating vacant city jobs to find money to keep four of the 10.

“We’ve got nobody under the age of 30 in our Fire Department, and we’ve got many over the age of 50,” Chief John Fruetel told council members recently. Many of those over 50 are eligible, or nearly eligible, for retirement.

“When you are this side of 40 as much as I am, you know doggone well that we need to have folks in the Fire Department that are younger,” said Council Member Meg Tuthill. She sees an opportunity for the younger firefighters to “support and learn from the folks who are there. And I feel the same way about the Police Department.”

In July, five of the six firefighters laid off in 2011 were rehired using funds from a federal grant called SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) that will pay their salaries for two years.

The city has since applied for another SAFER grant to hire six military veterans. This grant would pay their salaries for three years but would require the city to maintain staffing at least at the level in effect when the grant is awarded. The current staff totals 388.

Chief Fruetel said he’s seeking an additional 15 firefighters in the 2013 budget and that there are six veterans on the hire list. He also has addressed the possibility of as many as 100 retirements in the next five years in his budget request.

“I don’t see the impact of the attrition in the next 12 months,” Fruetel told members of the Ways and Means/Budget Committee Monday. “After that, all bets are off.”

“I think we are remiss to not have a plan to keep our Fire Department fully staffed up, and we don’t have one yet,” said Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy. She has asked a firefighter at Station 21 to call her every time there are not enough firefighters to keep both engines there operating.  He’s called four times so far.

“That second engine not being available means it will take longer to get to the home that needs it,” said Colvin Roy, “and it’s my area that’s almost all medical runs. It’s just unacceptable.”

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“We have to find adequate resources to hire a class of firefighters,” said Council President Barb Johnson, noting that it takes six months to train new hires. “I’m concerned that we have low staffing levels and we’re seeing increasing injuries in our firefighters.”

Property taxes

Last year, when Rybak unveiled his 2012 budget, his top priority was not increasing the property tax levy. That was also a major priority for the council.

This year, there is not so much talk about keeping a lid on property taxes. And there is potential for trouble on the horizon.

Come 2014, Neighborhood Community Relations, which funds neighborhood organizations across the city, will begin drawing money from tax increment finance districts. This will remove some property from the tax base and could force an increase in property taxes.

“We have an opportunity in 2013, if you know what’s coming [in 2014] to make some changes,” said Council Member Betsy Hodges, who chairs the Ways and Means/Budget Committee. “I’m hoping to see a balance between 2013 and 2014 in terms of property tax load, knowing that 2014 is going to be a challenging year.

“The experience people will have will be significant so you want to prepare in 2013,” she said. “You want to try to smooth it out a little bit in 2013.”

“We’ll have sort of a roller-coaster effect over the next few years,” said Council Member Robert Lilligren, referring to future budgets. “I hope, in the 2013 budget, we can find ways to level that out so it doesn’t feel like whiplash to property tax payers.”

Council Member Lisa Goodman is the only one who listed keeping a lid on property taxes as her top priority for the 2013 budget.

“Property taxes remain my key issue, but I’d like to see things in the budget that help grow the tax base,” said “I don’t see a scenario where the mayor is going to come in with a zero percent tax increase.”

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In the past, Goodman has voted against the budget when it forced property taxes to increase, but those protest votes have not changed the outcome.

“To continue to bang my head against the wall and demand that we reduce the property tax isn’t going to be a workable solution,” she said. “I want to advocate for something that makes the pie bigger, and that means making it easier to do business in the city, making the city a place where business want to locate so they bring in people and generate sales and property taxes.”

Council Member John Quincy agrees on the importance of increasing the tax base and is looking for construction of more rental property to accomplish that goal.

“I want to make sure there’s ample commitment to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund so we can continue to support building rental options,” he said.

“That’s not just a giveaway to developers,” Quincy said. “That’s a property tax investment that we’re making citywide. I want to make sure we’re building and enhancing our property tax base by development.”

The Minneapolis budget is not the only factor in the property tax calculation. That atotaql also includes levies from the Minneapolis School Board, the Park and Recreation Board and Hennepin County. 

Council Member Diane Hofstede wants to keep property taxes from increasing but knows Minneapolis cannot do this alone.

“There’s an eye on maintaining the lowest possible tax situation we can with our partners,” said Hofstede, noting that last year the park board and the city both approved zero-increase property tax budgets.

“We have very little influence with Hennepin County, I have to admit,” said Hofstede, “but at least we have to look at what their plans are and how we can work together.”

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Road construction

The 2012 budget included $150 million in street repair during the next five years. That was a 60 percent increase in what was originally planned.  This year, Minneapolis has spent $9 million more than originally scheduled on street repair, with an additional $23 million slated for 2013.

“We were behind the eight ball on road construction,” said Johnson, who wants to see more road improvements in the 2013 budget. “We have really low bond rates right now, and we sell bonds to do these improvements, so it’s a good time to be investing in the infrastructure in a real cost-effective way.”

“If we have an extra nickel or two, we should put it into road construction,” said Council Member Kevin Reich, who notes that increased road construction is “received very positively by the public.”

Youth violence

The results of a five-year review of youth violence in Minneapolis are expected in October.

Youth violence is a topic that strikes home in the North Side ward of Council Member Don Samuels, who chairs the Public Safety, Health and Civil Rights Committee.  He wants to see a budget that shows “how we’re going to enrich our response to youth violence.”

The North Side is not the only battleground. 

“My ward has 10 gangs,” said Schiff, who represents a ward south and east of downtown  “This year the city will spend $29,000 on gang prevention in the Ninth Ward. That’s two murals and a parents support group. It’s just embarrassing.”

Schiff says that Portland, Ore., has a much smaller gang presence than Minneapolis but has 10 full-time outreach workers. Minneapolis by comparison has no gang outreach workers. He wants to see “serious investment in gang intervention programs.”

Nicollet Avenue

Back in the 1970s, a City Council desperate to generate economic development voted to close off Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street to allow for construction of a K-Mart store. City staff is now studying a plan to re-open Nicollet Avenue.

Council Member Lilligren is looking for $500,000 in the 2013 budget to plan the reopening of Nicollet Avenue and another $7.5 million in the years ahead to make that happen.

“With Nicollet Avenue reopened, we get communities reconnected,” said Lilligren. “Nicollet should be a main street in south Minneapolis, and the intersection of Nicollet and Lake should be the spot in south Minneapolis.”

Lilligren sees the possibility for economic development on the four corners there, along with planned improvements to public transit in the area.

“We will increase the tax base, we will get the opportunity to create jobs and additional housing,” said Lilligren, who sees the area becoming an important destination on the south side.

City departments

This year, Minneapolis has a budget with 12 percent fewer full-time positions than existed 10 years ago. Some council members are concerned that the workforce needs to be stronger.

“My budget wish list is with internal services like Human Resources and Finance,” said Council Member Elizabeth Glidden. “I think you have to have departments like that strong, to support a strong overall city.”

“I’m concerned that we’re weakening the core because budgets have shrunk over a period of 10-plus years,” she added.

Sharing her concern is Quincy, who is particularly interested in the proposed budget for Community Planning and Economic Development.

“I’m anxious to see how the departments have proposed their budgets, their target levels, and see if we can still provide the full service that we’ve been looking for,” he said.

Avoiding layoffs for city workers is the top priority for Council Member Cam Gordon. He wants to see what repercussions the mayor’s property tax proposal will have on services provided by the city and by some of the smaller departments.

“I don’t think layoffs make much sense,” said Gordon, who is worried about such departments as Health and Civil Rights. “In the past, people have looked at those and thought maybe we could trim them down,” he said.

“I think they provide valuable services and I’d like to see them get strengthened,” said Gordon, who thinks 2013 budgeting will be tough. “I don’t think the economy is booming. I don’t think the taxes are rolling in, so I think it’s going to be a tight year.”

Budget hearings typically begin in September, with final budget approval in mid-December.