St. Paul seeks more trims in new budget

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2011 - 9:47 PM

With spending and revenue stretched, changes are unlikely.

At this point, $22 is the only trim that St. Paul residents will get from Mayor Chris Coleman's budget proposal, which would increase fees and taxes by $125 on a median-valued home next year.

The St. Paul City Council last week set the maximum property tax levy increase at the 6.5 percent Coleman had sought. Between now and December, council members will drag a microscope over all city departments, looking for ways to shift or save money.

But members concede that neither the levy amount nor the fees are likely to change significantly.

One consensus that seems to have formed is to whack the mayor's proposal that the city's recycler collect organics next year. Council President Kathy Lantry said the proposal will not be in the final budget, sparing St. Paul property owners $22 for 2012.

The amount demonstrates how little wiggle room remains in the city's $213 million budget after years of shrinking local-government aid payments from the state. Even as residents pay more in taxes and fees next year, the city's budget will be smaller than 2011. Absent a change in direction by the Legislature or an uptick in the economy, the trend will continue. Relief isn't in sight.

"It's going to be a tough year, there's no question about it," Council Member Dan Bostrom said. "There isn't much left to cut before it really starts to show."

Council Member Pat Harris represents Highland Park and will be casting his final budget vote because he isn't running for re-election. "I've had the same opinion every year; I'd like to get the levy down," he said. "You're always trying to find efficiencies."

Lantry routinely asks department leaders about funds with positive cash balances. In the past, she has succeeded in directing unused funds into needed areas. This year, she hasn't been so lucky or as she puts it, the "stop-gap" possibilities have been "drained."

Council members know residents are feeling the tight economy, but the city feels financial pressures in similar ways that it can't control, either. For example, between the police, fire and public works department St. Paul uses hundreds of thousands of gallons of gas a year. So when gas goes up by $1 a gallon, the city feels it with a correlating bump of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last week, the firefighters packed into the City Council chamber to denounce the $1 million cut to the department. No layoffs are planned, but firefighters said the cuts would extend response times when every second counts. Now the council is looking for $400,000 to restore their overtime budget so daily staffing levels don't drop.

"It isn't just numbers on a page," Lantry said.

Council Member Lee Helgen noted that about 80 percent of the city general fund budget goes for personnel. "All of these [cuts] are beginning to hit bodies," he said.

When Lantry started on the council in 1998, adjusting the budget meant finding ways to trim one place so the city could expand good programs. "Now we're just cutting things that are successful," she said, adding the number of recreation centers has dropped during her tenure from 42 to 25.

"We want to live within our means," Lantry said, adding that there some things the city cannot drop. "We have to maintain public safety, and having a good library and parks system are livability issues."

Unless the Legislature decides to return to full funding of local-government aid, the discussions will continue next year.

"A person gets to see what the public really wants and what they're willing to pay," Bostrom said.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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