St. Paul trims levy increase

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2011 - 10:47 PM

City Council whittled Mayor Coleman's proposal and voted to reinstate funds for firefighter overtime.

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St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman

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The St. Paul City Council and Mayor Chris Coleman agreed Wednesday to shave the city's levy increase to 4.9 percent, to maintain seven library positions and perhaps restore some money to the Fire Department.

The mayor initially proposed a 6.5 percent levy increase, but he dropped the number to 5.5 percent on Monday after the city collected more revenue than expected through the fall.

Under the plan unanimously adopted by the council, the owner of a $149,300 home will pay $34 more in taxes next year. With fee increases for sewer, water, rights of way and recycling, the homeowner will pay an extra $108 next year on top of the $1,321 paid in taxes and fees in 2011.

Council President Kathy Lantry said the council agreed with Coleman on most items in the $600 million budget. "I'm hopeful the priorities we've set out will be implemented by the mayor," Lantry said.

The council unanimously approved a series of actions required to adopt the budget. Members said the budget struck an admittedly painful balance between trying to hold down tax increases while maintaining services such as public safety and libraries. Keeping the library positions will allow longer hours at some facilities.

St. Paul has a strong-mayor system so Coleman has discretion in whether to follow the council. Although he agreed to the levy increase, he said staff must review the entire package.

The Fire Department budget remained the most notable disagreement between Coleman and the council. The final resolution remained unknown late Wednesday.

Coleman initially slated the agency for a $400,000 cut in overtime. The council restored the money. He also wanted to take out of service one of the city's three specialized rescue squads that handle hazardous material incidents and rescues from wells.

Fire Chief Timothy Butler said decommissioning a rescue squad "offers the best balance of citizen and firefighter safety" and prevents the temporary daily closures -- known as "brownouts" -- of fire stations.

Firefighters said the move would leave a "large swath of the city, that is already underserviced, in further peril."

After the council vote, Coleman declined to say what he would do. "At the end of the day, Chief Butler has to make decisions based on public safety," Coleman said. "The question is, what's the best way to provide service?"

Dozens of city fire fighters were in the council chamber for the vote, as they were during a budget hearing weeks ago. The firefighters and the mayor's office sent out preemptive news releases early in the day supporting their divergent positions.

In adopting the budget, council members acknowledged the hardship. Council Member Russ Stark said some residents are "seeing double-digit increases for the same or reduced services."

The mayor said the trend will continue "unless balance is restored" by the governor and the Legislature, which have slashed local government aid and shifted the tax burden for a decade.

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

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