Minneapolis will be hiring firefighters and police officers, but that investment in public safety will probably cause property taxes to increase under Mayor R.T. Rybak’s 2013 budget plan.
The mayor proposed a $1.1 million increase in personnel spending each year for the next five years and called for a class of firefighter recruits to begin training yet this year. The Fire Department has not hired any new recruits since 2008.
“Our Fire Department is rapidly aging,” said Rybak, attributing it to a low attrition rate in recent years. “As a result, the average age of a firefighter is now 46.”
Fire Chief John Fruetel had requested funding for 15 additional firefighters and has also applied for a federal grant that would pay the salaries of six new firefighters who are military veterans. The grant would provide $425,000 a year for three years and total $1.425 million.
“This will take some of the pressure off and build a little bit of an edge against the retirements I know I’m going to face,” said Fruetel after the budget presentation. He noted that although he would like to start a training class this year, it might take until early 2013 to get everyone hired.
Hiring firefighters is the No. 1 priority for eight of the 13 City Council members and a high priority for two others.
“People in my ward tell me increased spending for public safety is something they can accept,” said Council President Barb Johnson. “So if we frame a property tax increase in those terms, it’s being used to keep the pipeline full for the firefighters and police officers, they’ll be accepting of that.”
The mayor’s Budget Message does not come with a copy of the completed budget. That is expected until by early next week. That left some council members wondering exactly what $1.1 million might buy as part of a total department budget.
“I’m going to be sitting down with the fire chief and the assistant chief,” said Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy, whose priority is hiring more fire fighters.
“I need to understand more clearly than I do right now how many people and how many rigs this will buy,” said Colvin Roy, who is vice chair of the Ways and Means/Budget Committee.
According to Mark Lakosky, president of the Minneapolis Firefighters Union, the money to hire more fire fighters is a “great start.” He said the city currently pays $200,000 a month in overtime to fill in for those who are retiring or injured.
“Firefighting is a labor-intensive thing — I don’t think anybody would debate that,” said Lakosky, “so I think it’s a great move.”
The Police Department budget would increase by $2.5 million in 2013 under the Rybak budget. That will allow for the promotion next month of some community service officers from non-sworn to sworn status, as well as the hiring of a new group to replace them and the addition of sworn recruits next March.
“It’s an increase of about 10 people from where we are now,” said Police Chief Tim Dolan who expects to increase police staffing to 855 by next summer. A year ago, staffing was 853.
Rybak is proposing a 2013 property tax increase of 1.7 percent. This year’s budget has a zero percent increase.
“Any increase is a burden,” said Rybak who noted that the stadium legislation frees up an additional $5 million for property tax relief in 2013, money that would have gone instead to Target Center. Without that money, the property tax increase would have been 3.4 percent — double what the mayor is proposing.
Last year, the Ways and Means/Budget Committee cut the mayor’s proposed 2 percent increase in property taxes to zero, and the full council approved it. Chair Betsy Hodges does not think that will be possible this time around.
“Last year was an anomaly” said Hodges, who added that shifting city pensions to the state plan made the property tax cuts possible. “We could afford to do that because of pension reform.”
She is concerned, too, about 2014, when a change in the funding source for neighborhood organizations will remove some property from the current tax pool.
“Regardless of what we do with the levy in 2014, people are going to experience it as an increase in their taxes,” said Hodges, who would like to begin dealing with 2014 in the 2013 budget. “It may be that 1.7 percent gets us exactly where we need to go,” she said. “What I’m looking for is the best transition possible between 2013 and 2014.”
The Board of Estimate and Taxation will meet in mid-September to set a 2013 tax increase limit that the council cannot exceed.
For now, council members are waiting until they have the budget documents in hand before making any promises.
“I can’t comment, honestly, on the 1.7 percent,” said Council Member Meg Tuthill, a member of the budget committee. “The Mayor says it’s [the 1.7 percent] for police and fire, but … I’ve got to go through the budget before I can decide.”
The Regulatory Services Department would be restructured, saving the city $300,000 to $400,000 a year by eliminating some top management salaries.
Business licensing and business development review would be handed off to Community Planning and Economic Development to create a one-stop-shopping opportunity for business owners.
“The intent is to streamline the way businesses interact with the City,” said Rybak, who would also move Environmental Management from Regulatory Services to the Health Department. The remaining functions would be retitled the Inspections Department, which would focus on code enforcement.
Budget hearings are to begin in September with public hearings and a final vote expected in mid-December.