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St. Paul budget keeps spending flat but includes $1 million for troubled crime lab

Central library hours are saved, more food inspectors will be hired and the Parent Academy expanded.

St. Paul’s budget for 2013 was finalized this week, with about $501 million to be spent on city services, about the same as this year.

The council and Mayor Chris Coleman have been negotiating the final product for weeks, and while the city tax levy is set to rise 1.9 percent, they say most homeowners are likely to see no increase or a slight decrease in their city share of property taxes.

The mayor and council members say it’s balanced and stable, a rare combination in government budgeting these days.

Coleman said it “invests in what we value most: our community. It demonstrates a dedication to our city’s children, public safety and the community.”

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Council President Kathy Lantry said it provides as much as the city can afford.

“I’m reminded again, after all these years of working on budgets, that there’s always a balance: The need is always greater than the resources, even when times are good,” said Lantry, who was first elected to the council in 1998.

“You always have to think about whether the basic service needs are being met, and I think we’ve done a fine job with the resources we’ve been given,” she said.

Council Member Dave Thune called it “a good budget, with some compromises. He said he’s glad that the Central Library got a reprieve of sorts and won’t have to close on Mondays. “That was important to me,” he said.

Lantry said the library hours are a high priority for her, too.

Included in the budget is $1 million to improve the police department’s embattled crime lab, which has been accused of sloppy practices.

Details of the crime lab spending are still being worked out and will come back to the council for approval, Lantry said.

“As spending authority for the crime lab is needed, it will come back to the council. We want to know what the million dollars buys: Is this going to be the Cadillac of crime labs, or a Pinto?

“We need more education about what’s going to happen. We want to be sure our police officers get what they needed to make their jobs easier while being cognizant that we’re not ‘CSI Miami,’ ” she said.

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The city had a bit more money to work with than first expected because health care costs were lower than expected and plans to join with Ramsey County on a fiber optic network have fallen through.

The city also plans to increase hours at three recreation centers and add seven full-time food inspectors.

And there’s money to expand school Parent Academies to more neighborhoods. The seven-week programs help parents learn how to be more involved in their children’s education.