St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s budget plans boosts affordable housing, increases taxes

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter proposed a budget for next year that includes no new cops but hefty investment in affordable housing, new streets, and legal help for immigrants — and a 11.5 percent property tax increase.

“In an increasingly polarizing national landscape, we must be champions of local unity, and move forward together in building a city that meets our needs today, but also creates a St. Paul of the future that our children, and grandchildren want to live in,” Carter said during a speech at Washington Technology Magnet School in the city’s North End. “To realize this vision, we need a city budget that reflects our values and invests in a future for all of us.”

City officials said the tax increase equates to an extra $76 for the owner of a median-value home ($186,200). In all, it equates to an additional $37 million in spending over last year’s $569 million budget, $16 million of which would be paid through the proposed increase in taxes.

Carter also said he had identified $2.5 million in spending decreases, using as an example the $100,000 saved for not having a July 4 fireworks display this year. Additionally, the mayor said the city would not backfill many vacant positions, defer technology purchases in several departments, phase off brick pavers downtown, and require departments to not levy any inflationary costs for non-personnel items.

NO ADDITIONAL POLICE OFFICERS

For the city’s police department, Carter’s budget doesn’t add any officers, keeping staffing at its current level of 626. Chief Todd Axtell had asked for 50 officers over two years, which would require about $4.5 million annually.

“My opposition to that proposal centers around the fact that while a well-balanced community needs police and much more, that price tag would leave little room for any other investments,” Carter said.

Following the news conference, Carter said, “I think Chief Axtell recognizes that we have invested in our police department.”

But the budget does call for internal changes in the department. It funds a new Mental Health Co-Responder Program — embedding social workers and mental health professionals with police officers — at a cost of $500,000 annually; and beefs up the sex crimes division, adding two new investigators and a new commander.

In March, the police department started the mental health unit; they had been discussing the idea for it since 2016, but it took time to get off the ground.

St. Paul police officers will be getting raises — more than 11 percent staggered over three years — in a new contract approved in June by the city council. As of June, the other contracts settled by the city of St. Paul this year had an 8 percent wage increase over three years.

The budget also adds $500,000 for a “basic life support team” for the fire department, “to meet less serious calls with an appropriate level of service while leaving valuable paramedic and fire assets available to respond to the next call.”

Carter said he would ask the city council to amend to the current-year budget to place $100,000 into an “immigration legal defense fund.” For next year, the budget adds a full-time immigration support services attorney in the City Attorney’s Office.

“Sadly, our public safety plan must include a strategy to defend our New American neighbors. … St. Paul cannot and will not be a city that does nothing while our neighbors are targeted,” Carter said.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, center, prepares to deliver his 2019 Budget Address at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

HOUSING, PARKS

The budget allocates significant money toward low-income housing — creating a one-time “Housing Trust Fund” of $10 million, plus an additional $2 million annually. That includes $3.6 million to construct rental units targeting tenants making 30 percent to 50 percent of the area median income, and $3 million for the “inspiring communities” program which acquires and rehabilitates vacant properties, primarily in low-income neighborhoods.

“Our city is growing, and vacancy rates are low, 2 percent,” Carter said, adding that he felt the city needed to build 15,000 to 18,000 units by 2030.

For the parks department, the budget adds $200,000 for free recreational programming, effectively tripling that programming budget.

NEW STREETS, MORE INSPECTORS

For streets, the budget doubles the mill and overlay repaving program, and funds a three-year plan to mill and overlay every street downtown — together costing $5.5 million. It also puts another $1 million into sidewalk maintenance, and adds a new bike lane maintenance fund, starting at $500,000 annually. Additionally, the budget adds $1.2 million to combat the emerald ash borer.

For safety and inspections, the budget adds three new inspectors to address permit applications. The budget also adds $5 million in internal loans to the budget to increase energy efficiency in city buildings.

City Council President Amy Brendmoen said council will spend the next three months “evaluating, challenging, and most likely modifying the exiting budget.” The council will likely vote on a final budget in December.

Property taxes increased 24 percent in 2018, though that included the off-set of “right of way” street maintenance costs now to be paid for through property taxes, as opposed to fees.

Going back further, property taxes increased 7.94 percent in 2017 and just 1.9 percent in 2016.

“I think it’s a big number, but it’s also attached to really big ideas,” Brendmoen said after Carter’s speech. “Our job in front of us is to dig into the ideas, and make sure we’re value for the dollars we spend.”

Source: – Pioneer Press

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