After winning a last inning, round-about victory at the Capitol last year for partial funding of a regional ballpark, St. Paul has a new legislative wish list.
It’s top bonding priorities include an expansion of the downtown Children’s Museum, a new police gun range and better ways to get to Como Park.
The city also is pushing for what it calls “fairness with Minneapolis.”
But with legislators facing a projected $1 billion deficit, it’s unclear how much money might be available for St. Paul’s projects.
City officials say they like their chances, though, given the DFL majorities in the House and Senate (and key city legislators now holding seniority and more clout) and Gov. Mark Dayton’s s stated concern for inner cities.
“The mayor and the city are encouraged by the governor’s strong support of urban areas and recognition that something has to be done to help property tax payers,” said Joe Campbell, spokesman for Mayor Chris Coleman.
City Council President Kathy Lantry said some of the city’s legislative requests are related to last year’s deals. When the Vikings stadium was approved for downtown Minneapolis, there were subsidies for the city for Target Center and a long-term extension of the city sales tax.
St. Paul now wants forgiveness of $32 million in Xcel Energy Center debt, so money can be plowed back into renovations of the 13-year-old arena used by the Wild. And St. Paul wants an extension of its half-cent city sales tax, too, until 2047. (It’s now set to expire in 2030, but an extension would provide long-term benefits for city planning and spending.)
“It’s partly a fairness thing with Minneapolis,” Lantry said. “But the big issue is that we’re asking for the loan forgiveness so we can take the money we would be paying back, and use it for Xcel improvements, so that it remains a long-term asset and doesn’t depreciate.
“It’s very fair, considering the subsidies for Target Center.”
Although the arena may seem relatively new, she said, the scoreboard is already so dated that replacement parts are hard to find. “It’s like having a 13-year-old computer.”
Campbell said: “We’re asking for the same things Minneapolis got along with the stadium. We’re looking for equity and two strong downtowns — the same access to what they got.”
In its 2013 legislative agenda, approved by the City Council, St. Paul has listed six priorities for a bonding bill. Ranked, in order of priority, they are:
- Minnesota Children’s Museum Expansion — $12 million
Renovation and expansion of the Minnesota Children’s Museum flagship building. Working primarily within the museum’s current footprint, the project would provide a 50 percent increase in galleries and programming space with the capacity to serve 550,000 visitors annually.
- Como Park Transportation Improvements — $7 million
Design and construction of transportation and access improvements to Como Regional Park, which serves more than 4 million visitors annually.
- TPT Renovations — $9 million
Construction of new public spaces as well as refurbishing and equipping existing spaces in the current Twin Cities Public Television building.
- Regional Public Safety Building/Indoor Range — $6.5 million
Construction of a regional public safety facility and indoor firing range in St. Paul. The building would house communications, maintenance, training facilities and the narcotics and vice unit. The current annex, where the range is located, is scheduled to be razed for a park. Total projected cost is about $13 million.
- Great River Passage (Watergate) — $1.44 million
Funding to design a waterfront marina along the Mississippi River as part of the Great River Passage, which would connection all 17 miles of the city’s riverfront. Total estimated cost of the marina is $18.9 million.
- Como Zoo Seals and Sea Lions Exhibit — $2.090 million
Planning and design of the renewal of the Seals and Sea Lions exhibit at Como Zoo. The new exhibit would provide year-round use. Total estimated cost of the renewal project is $10 million.
Last year, the city’s top bonding priority was the Lowertown ballpark for the St. Paul Saints. The request didn’t make it through the normal bonding bill process in the spring, but was granted $25 million in September, through a separate pot of money that the Legislature set aside.
Local Government Aid
St. Paul also will lobby hard to preserve the Local Government Aid grants that many cities around the state use to keep property taxes down.
The Legislative Agenda document says it has lost “$167 million as a result of a decade of cuts in State funding, and continues to bear a disproportionate share of the State’s budget balancing burden … [and has caused] a direct negative impact on public safety resources, with property taxes being the only other viable revenue source available to balance spending reductions.”
Campbell said LGA is a “huge priority and city lobbyists and elected officials will fight tooth and nail to make sure city property tax payers’ interests are heard” at the Capitol.
In the early 2000s, St. Paul received more than $70 million a year from the state in Local Government Aid.
The amount has now dropped to about $50 million a year.
“LGA needs to be predictable,” Lantry said. “When it fluctuates from year to year, it’s very difficult to budget. When we work to live within our means, and then they change it, it wreaks havoc on our budgets. We’ll live within our means — just tell us what our means really are.”
The city says the extension of the city’s half-cent sales tax to 2047 is part of a clarification of language regarding last year’s ballpark deal. That part of the request seeeks to:
- Extend the city’s half-cent sales tax to 2045.
- Use the $3.5 million (in city STAR Funds) to pay principal on bonds for capital projects beyond December 31, 2014.
- Have flexibility to use the 40 percent portion of the half-cent sales tax for economic development purposes if the amount necessary to meet obligations at the RiverCentre is less than 40 percent.
- Have the new regional ballpark be exempt from property taxes, consistent with the treatment given Xcel xrena and the Twins Stadium.
Lantry says she enters the annual legislative fray with optimism.
“We always have to go into session thinking the best things will happen. These things we’re asking for are important and we’ll work like hell to make certain they go forward.
“There’s always uncertainty, but we’ve been intentional, and we’re not asking for the moon here.”