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Hodges proposes 2.4% levy hike, more spending on public safety

Posted by: Eric Roper under Politics and government Updated: August 14, 2014 - 2:09 PM

By Eric Roper and Maya Rao

Highlighting investments in public safety and initiatives to reduce racial disparities, Mayor Betsy Hodges offered many specific proposals Thursday for growing city services in her first budget speech.

The mayor proposed raising the amount the city collects in property taxes, the property tax levy, by 2.4 percent. That's the largest increase in several years, on the heels of a boost in state aid after years of cuts.

Hodges said more than half of the levy increase is due to inflation and rises in the cost of current services. The precise impact on homeowners remains to be seen, since the levy is spread out among the city's growing tax base. The mayor claimed more than half of homeowners would see no increase or a decrease in their taxes.

"More than half of the proposed levy increase...maintains the status quo," Hodges said in prepared remarks. "When we voted last fall, however, we didn't vote for just the status quo. We didn't vote for business as usual."

(Explore the 2014 budget using this interactive tool)

Afterward the speech, Council President Barb Johnson said that she wants to look at whether the city really needs to increase the levy 2.4 percent, given the increase in state aid to Minneapolis and increasing revenues from sales taxes and other sources.

“Now we need to do the deep dive,” said Johnson.

Some of the largest investments Hodges proposed target police, fire and emergency response. She also highlighted a $3.5 million contribution to the Nicollet Mall reconstruction and $750,000 to expand the city's modest number of protected bike lanes.

The complete budget, which must be approved by the City Council later this year, has yet to be released.

Regarding public safety, Hodges proposed:

- Adding ten more police officers for an authorized force of 860 sworn officers. The cost of this was not specified, however.

- Committing $1 million to add 20 community service officers to the police department. "Community service officers are our most effective ladder into the Police Department," Hodges said.

- Spending $960,000 for an 18-person police cadet class next year.

- Funding the implementation of a police body camera program with $1.1 million in one-time capital funding and ongoing operating dollars.

- Allocating $800,000 for two fire department recruit classes in 2015. The precise size of these classes was not specified.

- Hiring four more 911 operators for a cost of $346,000 (following controversy in that department).

Council Member Blong Yang, chair of the city's public safety committee, noted the police department was already aiming for a staffing level of 860 officers – they’ve said this would occur by the end of the year. “So it’s not a change,” Yang said. “It’s keeping steady, I think.”

Regarding 911 staffing, Yang said it was a “slight increase, but it’s not a huge increase.”

To reduce the city's racial disparities, a key focus of her administration, Hodges proposed:

- Adding an additional $1 million to the city's affordable housing spending.

- Spending $70,000 on parental support, including "providing culturally specific parent education to increase parenting skills through education, individualized coaching and parent-peer support."

- Adding additional money for elections staff and communications to improve the city's outreach with minority communities.

- Increasing staff in the civil rights department's contract compliance unit and boosting funding for the city's STEP-UP program by $75,000,

- Creating two positions in the city coordinator's office to ensure city services support goals around equity.

Another proposal would fund durable markings at bicycle conflict areas, high-use vehicle lanes and crosswalks. Hodges also suggested adding more money to clear corners and bikeways of snow during the winter.

Hodges' first budget comes during a time of growth for the city. She said the city has already surpassed $1 billion in the value of construction permits, which did not happen until October in 2013.

"Growth in cities is quickly becoming the status quo rather than a new trend," Hodges said. "People across the country continue to move into our urban cores."

Council Member Cam Gordon described the proposed levy increase as modest.

“I think it’s a levy increase that will probably be mostly accommodated by the growth in the tax base, so we’re not going to see … lots of property tax increases that are very dramatic,” Gordon said.

Fire Chief John Fruetel praised the mayor’s addition of resources for fire inspectors.

 “She mentioned a lot of growth going on in the city and I think it’s important to keep ourselves positioned to effectively respond to that growth,” Fruetel said.

Photo: Hodges gives her first State of the City speech earlier this year (David Joles)

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