Mayor Coleman seeks 2% levy hike for police, gardens, permits

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 13, 2012 - 7:57 PM

Despite fiscal challenges, he told a midday gathering, the city is thriving. The increase would be the second in two years.

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St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman

Photo: Leah Millis, Star Tribune

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St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman proposed a nearly 2 percent property levy increase in his budget in order to add seven police officers, assist the Frogtown Farms project and try to make the city permitting process easier.

In his midday speech on Monday at the Farmer's Market in Lowertown, the mayor touted projects that are helping to bring that part of town to life, from the city-built and fully rented Farmer's Market Lofts to the proposed Lowertown regional ballpark, the Union Depot and the light-rail corridor line. He talked of a city plan to expand the sidewalk for cafe seating outside the Bulldog and Barrio restaurants.

But in the mayor's sixth budget address, he also proposed increasing the tax levy for the second consecutive year. Last year, he and the City Council increased the levy 4.9 percent. The mayor sought to emphasize the challenges faced by the city during the worst economy in decades and dwindling state and federal aid. In spite of the financial constraints, he said, the city -- with a budget of about $500 million -- is thriving atop strong financial footing.

"These hurdles have been met with a resolve to rise above them and move forward. We have not been deterred nor defeated," he said, citing as additional examples the new pool at Como Regional Park, the redevelopment of the Schmidt Brewery, Frogtown Square and the Payne-Maryland Project.

Speaking for 25 minutes, he stood near the site of what the city hopes will be the Lowertown regional ballpark for the St. Paul Saints. The city awaits word -- likely to come in September -- from Gov. Mark Dayton on a request for $27 million.

Coleman also got on board the Frogtown Farms project, proposing that the city use a variety of sources to rev up the plan with a $1 million infusion. The aim is to turn a 12-acre plot into a farm-recreation-nature-sanctuary at 919 Lafond Av.

Tony Schmitz, a 33-year Frogtown resident, was among those in the audience who gave the proposal the loudest applause of the speech. Of all the kids in the city, those in Frogtown see the least green space, which is essential to cognitive development, he said. "Kids in Frogtown have as much right to that as any in the state. It's very exciting for us," Schmitz said.

At the urging of Council President Kathy Lantry and Council Member Amy Brendmoen, the mayor budgeted $200,000 to hire a consultant in 2013 and begin making changes to the city's Department of Safety and Inspections.

Both Brendmoen and Lantry say the agency is nearly impenetrable. "It should be as easy as possible," Brendmoen said.

The mayor proposed restoring some $1 million to the police department, which would allow Chief Tom Smith to rehire seven officers. He expects to have 610 sworn officers by early next year, up from his current 595.

But the mayor also proposed cutting about eight hours a week at the Central Library. Lantry said the council will seek to find money to restore the hours.

Overall, Lantry said the mayor tried to hold down the levy increase as best he could. "You've got to do a lot with a little," she said.

The council will conduct hearings, then vote on a budget in December.

The levy increase would raise an additional $1.9 million for a total levy of $101.2 million. The owner of a $140,000 home in the city would see an increase of $12.

The mayor also proposes increasing fees for next year. He would increase the right-of-way fees by 2.7 percent or $5.90 on a typical city home. Water fees would increase by 3.7 percent, complicated by a rate design change. The combination will mean an increase of $24.56 per year for an average home.

Recycling rates will increase by $2.60 a year.

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

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