Improving economic equity and bolstering public safety and infrastructure are high on the priority lists of the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul, who both pitched their 2015 budget proposals this week.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman are seeking 2.4 percent hikes in their respective property tax levies — a good portion of which would keep services at current levels.
That percentage sounds like a relatively modest increase. But combined with other factors such as rising home valuations, the proposed hikes would hit some taxpayers harder than it appears at first glance. As the proposals are discussed in coming weeks, the mayors and City Council members in both cities should continue to look for ways to minimize those hikes.
Consistent with their State of the City talks earlier this year, Hodges and Coleman focused on how the economic futures of both cities and the region depend on reducing disparities between racial, ethnic and economic groups.
As for public safety, both mayors rightly emphasized either maintaining or increasing the ranks of police officers and firefighters.
The $1.2 billion budget proposal from Hodges would add 10 police officers, filling out the authorized force of 860. The budget also includes $1 million for 20 community service officers, slightly less than $1 million for an 18-person cadet class, $800,000 for two Fire Department recruit classes, and nearly $350,000 to add four 911 operators and dispatchers. That department came under scrutiny earlier this year after news reports of slow response times and periods when emergency calls went unanswered.
Hodges also would use $1.1 million to fund a police body camera program. That's an especially important investment, given the history of sometimes strained relations between the police and the community. As the mayor points out, body cams have been shown to decrease both the use of force and complaints about police misconduct.
To help reduce racial disparities, Hodges recommends adding $1 million in affordable-housing spending, creating two positions to coordinate equity goals and city services, increasing Civil Rights Department contract compliance staff and investing in helping parents do a better job with at-risk children.
Hodges said the proposed levy increase would mean flat or lower property taxes for those whose home valuations increase 7 percent or less, while those with higher value gains would see increases.
In St. Paul, Coleman's proposed $515.2 million operating budget would increase taxes on a median value home of $145,000 by about $16 per year. But that increase does not reflect county and school district portions of the total tax bill. Nor does it include the regular assessments St. Paul property owners pay on top of property taxes. Fees for right-of-way frontage would increase 2.4 percent; recycling services would go up 2.2 percent, and sewer utilities would rise by 3.5 percent.
And even without a levy hike, residential taxpayers in St. Paul face a $112 increase on a median-value home, because property values are rising.
Coleman's major investment would come in repairing the city's deteriorating main streets. He wants to earmark $54 million for street repairs and upgrades, including $34 million next year to start rebuilding crumbling arterial streets. The condition of roads is one of the major complaints the mayor heard during several listening sessions he held around the city. Hearing the same concerns from their constituents, six of seven City Council members urged the mayor to reconstruct rather than patch city streets.
And St. Paul's CEO wants the city to become the first in the state to offer paid parental leave benefits beyond what is required under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. That's a family-friendly move that can help attract younger workers and families to the city, but at an annual cost of $200,000, it deserves more scrutiny.
Both Minneapolis and St. Paul are benefiting from a recovering economy and renewed interest in urban living. The balancing act is keeping service levels high and property taxes as low as possible.
The priorities highlighted in the twin budget proposals are a good start, but officials in both St. Paul and Minneapolis should keep looking for ways to cut costs and reduce the burden on taxpayers.