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Candidates discuss public housing security

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: October 25, 2013 - 5:27 PM

Mayoral candidates were quizzed Thursday on an issue of high importance for residents of public housing -- security.

Security in the city's public housing projects has been cut in recent years partly because City Hall declined to continue imposing a tax to help pay for it. The $1.4 million levy was initially lifted in 2010 because the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority secured extra funding, but it was never fully restored.

Asked about whether they would restore the levy Thursday, candidates had diverging viewpoints (audio below).

Don Samuels noted that even though there are police shortages throughout the city, crime has declined to low levels. He says he would come up with "creative plans" to use city resources to make sure public housing is safe. "We can’t raise taxes any more, unfortunately," Samuels said. "We have doubled literally our taxes in the city over the last 10 years, we can’t do that anymore."

Stephanie Woodruff said this seems like a "no-brainer," calculating that the $1.4 million shortfall amounts to $23 a month per resident. "I can’t publicly commit without seeing all of the requirements in the budget. But … I told you before, that my budget will reflect my values and that’s putting people first. $23 per month per resident seems quite a bit reasonable in terms of providing safety." She said it could be paid for partly by not redirecting property taxes to streetcars.

Jackie Cherryhomes said she was on the City Council when the MPHA was created, along with a "promise" that the levy would be used to provide resident services. "We have to restore that levy," Cherryhomes said. "Because the fact of the matter is that the budget was balanced at the penalty of the folks in these buildings." She added that residents should not be penalized because the MPHA director secured additional funding.

Betsy Hodges said she was part of a team that helped restore the "financial equivalent of the levy to the MPHA" the year after the levy was first lifted. She added that "instead of increasing the levy, we pay back some money to the MPHA that is the equivalent. So that is good news. But I take the question in the spirit of, 'Do we share the goal of making sure that there is security here?' And the answer to that is yes."

UPDATE: Bob Boyd, director of policy and special initiatives at MPHA, disputed the notion that the city made the authority whole. He said there were efforts to forgive a certain portion of the MPHA's in-kind tax payments, but "it wasn't comparable at all. It was way short of the amount of the levy."

Dan Cohen offered a direct response. "We’re going to restore the levy," Cohen said. "We’re not going to sacrifice or risk your safety in order to save a few dollars."

Bob Fine said security for public housing is important, "but we also have other trying issues in this city." He said he would not promise to restore the levy, but he would "definitely take a look at the levy and take a look at all the circumstances to decide whether it gets restored or not."

Cam Winton said the city should add an additional 125 police officers to help maintain safety in the streets as well as public housing projects. He proposed paying for the $12.5 million cost by streamlining regulations and cutting enforcement expenses. "With great respect to my fellow candidates, council president Cherryhomes and council president Cohen did just pledge to raise taxes in the city. We cannot afford a levy increase," Winton said.

Mark Andrew, following Winton, said it was his understanding that fellow candidates had not said they would "actually raise the levy. I think people are talking about finding the revenues." He said he would be "including in our budget, whether it’s a freestanding levy or whether it’s a reorganization, priorities for us to forge a stronger relationship with Minneapolis public housing, to [ensure] that several strategies are in place to maximize the security of our residents." He added the city needs more police officers that are trained to respond to downtown disturbances.

The tone of the forum was largely tame until Andrew shot back at Winton's answer to a question about creating programs specifically aimed at Somali ex-convicts -- one of the first times he has jabbed back at Winton, a frequent critic. Winton had said he believed in "color-blind ladders of opportunity."

"Would I create more programs targeted specifically to Somali Americans?" Winton asked. "No I would not. Nor would I create any programs that specifically targeted any other person of whatever ethnic makeup. In our modern multi-ethnic Minneapolis, targeting programs to particular ethnicities does not make sense."

Andrew responded: “I actually have to take issue with what I just heard. I think that was an ignorant statement. That’s unbelievable. We have to target government resources to specific communities because different communities have different needs."

Feedback from the microphone soon drowned out Andrew's voice, prompting Winton to say, "That’s the stupid meter, it turns people off for saying things that are stupid." Winton clarified in an interview that he was referring to Andrew's comments, not Andrew himself, and he was alluding to Mayor R.T. Rybak's comment to MinnPost in September about Andrew making a "deeply stupid" remark.

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