If the citizens of St. Paul are at all concerned about the city’s looming $9.6 million deficit, or its rutted streets, or the high cost of public transit, they didn’t show any sign of it Wednesday evening.
Only 15 people showed up for Mayor Chris Coleman’s West Side meeting on the 2015 budget, the first of four sessions the mayor has scheduled in the next couple of weeks to take the public’s pulse on spending priorities for next year.
The question-and-answer forum, slated for an hour, wrapped up in 30 minutes.
“This is a quiet group,” Coleman said, prodding attendees to come up with more questions.
The mayor will deliver his recommended 2015 budget to the City Council in a speech on Aug. 13 at a W. 7th Street housing redevelopment. The council will conduct hearings and meetings to tweak the budget before finalizing it by the end of this year.
There have been few surprises as city officials launch the public portion of the new budget season. The deficit, announced by the mayor last week, is about what officials expect to see in coming years as a result of inflation, rising fuel prices and salary costs.
The mayor didn’t tip his hand in terms of how he plans to close that gap, other than to say that residents shouldn’t automatically assume a property tax increase will be part of the mix. But they should assume that the budget won’t grow beyond this year’s $515.5 million spending plan, he said.
Last year, a significant boost in state aid enabled Coleman to propose, and the City Council to approve, the 2014 tax levy without an increase. It was only the second time in eight years that the mayor did not seek a higher tax levy.
Officials estimate that St. Paul stands to get $61.8 million in state aid next year, an expected boost of $1.4 million.
To prepare for next year’s belt-tightening, Coleman has asked city departments to restrain inflationary growth by a total of $1 million and cut the bottom line by another $1 million. That, combined with the hike in state aid, would reduce the budget gap to $6.2 million.
“We’re literally scraping every dollar and looking at every pot of money,” the mayor told the audience.
But he added that it was important for St. Paul to continue “prudent” investment to spur development, such as with the recent light-rail project and possible streetcar lines in the future. The “common denominator” among up-and-coming cities, he said, is investment in transportation.
Asked about plans to improve the city’s streets, Coleman promised “a comprehensive plan” in the coming weeks to attack the problem. He said the city will seek help from the state and possibly federal money as well.
The mayor and the council are at odds on what to do in the meantime. Coleman plans to spend $2.5 million this summer to patch streets, while a majority of council members — many of them his allies — have instead proposed bonding for $22 million to start rebuilding arterial roads.
The remaining budget meetings are scheduled for July 23, 9 a.m., Golden Thyme Coffee and Cafe, 921 Selby Av.; July 26, 3 p.m., J & S Bean Factory, 1518 Randolph Av.; and Aug. 1, 1:30 p.m., Hmong Village, 1001 Johnson Pkwy. Residents who can’t make the meetings but want to submit their ideas may visit the city website, www.stpaul.gov, or go to Twitter and use the hashtag #stpaulbudget.