St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s proposed 2020 budget includes millions of dollars for local street projects, including eliminating traffic on a portion of Ayd Mill Road to make space for a dedicated bikeway.
Despite $20 million for road reconstruction and resurfacing, Carter said it’s not enough to rescue the city’s crumbling streets. A week after the release of a public works report calling for about $50 million a year for street maintenance, Carter said the city — as well as the county and state — must step up. Without a cash infusion, most St. Paul streets will be “undrivable in just 20 years,” Carter said in his budget address Thursday, echoing the report’s findings.
“While there are no shortage of historical reasons for this disinvestment, we don’t have time to place blame; we must take responsibility,” Carter said. “We must and will work actively with our partners in county and state government to identify new resources to maintain our public right of way.”
The proposed 2020 budget marks the second year of a program that doubled spending on neighborhood street resurfacing and launched a three-year repaving project for downtown streets.
Carter delivered his 2020 budget address to a crowd of about 200 city staff, elected officials and residents at St. Paul’s new Frogtown Community Center. His proposed $622 million budget includes a 4.85% property tax levy increase — up $7.6 million from the 2019 budget — after two years of double-digit levy increases.
The levy is the amount of money the city collects in property taxes, not the amount that individual property owners pay. For a median-value home, a 4.85% levy increase translates into an extra $55 a year, Carter said.
The new tax dollars will help fill a $17 million gap between city spending and revenue in 2020, due in large part to salary growth for city workers.
Carter’s proposal also includes more than $4 million in cuts, including eliminating five sworn police officers, reducing the fire academy by two weeks and scaling back free youth programs. Carter is also proposing a $5 daily fee “for all but our lowest-income families” in Rec Check after-school programs.
“None of these reductions are ideal,” Carter said. “They represent a very difficult and challenging set of decisions, over which my team and I have agonized greatly.”
Still, the proposed budget includes new investments, including staff to implement and enforce the minimum wage increase that the City Council passed last year, expanded recreation center hours to account for changing school start times and upgrades to parking meters to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
There are also new line items intended to reduce gas-powered vehicle traffic on city streets, including a collaboration with Hourcar, Xcel Energy and the city of Minneapolis to build the country’s first electric car-share network powered entirely with renewable energy.
Carter said he’s asked the public works department to use an upcoming resurfacing project on Ayd Mill Road to reduce car traffic to two lanes and build a protected bikeway on the eastern side of the road — an announcement that drew applause.
“Our city has grown by nearly 30,000 people in the last 10 years, and we’re projected to add another 30,000 over the next 20 years,” Carter said. “Unless our local streets can absorb 30,000 more single-occupancy vehicles than we have today, our only choice is to fundamentally shift our ideas about how people get around our city.”
New public safety programs
As in previous years, the bulk of general-fund spending — about $105 million — will go to the police department. City leaders drew criticism from residents last year after deciding to add nine new police officers late in the 2019 budget process.
Even with proposed cuts in 2020, Carter said, the force is larger than it’s ever been.
As in his State of Our City address in March, Carter reiterated his community-first public safety strategy and outlined new efforts, including a City Attorney’s office program to divert first-time, low-level offenders to “community-based restorative justice circles” instead of criminal prosecution.
The city is also working with Ramsey County, Regions Hospital and the East Metro Mental Health Roundtable to provide housing and treatment plans to people who have frequent contacts with police, firefighters and paramedics, Carter said.
“A city that fails to address the root causes of economic and social isolation that keep people feeling desperate can never hire enough police officers,” he said. “Our goal of making St. Paul an even safer city demands a proactive strategy to identify and interrupt the cycles that keep us responding to crisis after crisis.”
More money for libraries
Carter also proposed a nearly $18.7 million library budget Thursday afternoon.
In his library budget address at the Arlington Hills library, the mayor spent almost as much time talking about the impact of money St. Paul is not collecting — $215,000 in since-eliminated late fines — than the $700,000 increase he is proposing for the library system. That’s because eliminating those fines has reopened the doors to nearly 50,000 people who’d had their library cards frozen by unpaid fines.
“We learned they don’t do what we thought they’d do,” Carter said of fines. “We used to think that late fines made people bring their books back. The truth is, it makes people stay away from — and often resent — the public library.”
Since eliminating fines, library officials said there’s been almost no change in materials returned late to libraries. Instead, library usage is booming at a time when libraries nationwide are seeing a decline. At Arlington Hills, checkouts are up 19.3% compared with the first six months of last year, said Catherine Penkert, director of the St. Paul Public Library.
“It just didn’t make sense,” the mayor said, adding that the system was spending $250,000 worth of staff time to collect that $215,000 — a net loss.