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Mayor Chris Coleman

Leah Millis, Star Tribune

$2 million

Extra money in the St. Paul budget uncovered by Mayor Chris Coleman

$1 million

Will go toward lowering the expected tax increase for residents in 2012

St. Paul's boon brings discord

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • December 12, 2011 - 10:44 PM

Mayor Chris Coleman might have scored some points with St. Paul taxpayers on Monday, but some City Council members were not happy with the mayor's surprise announcement.

Coleman took credit in a news release for uncovering an additional $2 million in revenue, which means property taxpayers can expect a smaller increase than previously announced.

How much lower? That's still unknown, yet to be hashed out between Coleman and council members before the council adopts the 2012 budget on Wednesday.

Coleman said he wants to split the bounty, with half going to reduce the property tax increase and the other half going to stave off planned cuts to police, fire and library budgets.

President Kathy Lantry said she expects the council to "springboard" off Coleman's latest proposal and "enhance" it. She didn't reveal her plans, but said Coleman's "suggestions" will be taken into account.

The mayor's Monday announcement, along with two detailed letters to the seven City Council members, came as a surprise at City Hall where intensive budget negotiations had been going on for days, if not weeks, behind closed doors. The details of a developing deal were closely guarded by all, purportedly because no one wanted to upset a precarious pact.

Coleman's unilateral heralding of his position shattered a long-standing cooperative tone and some privately predicted his action could affect dealings at City Hall well into next year. Shortly after his news release, the mayor left to board a plane to Washington, D.C.

Lantry was notably restrained in her response to Coleman. "He already submitted his budget; he doesn't get to amend his own budget," she said, emphasizing that only the council can now change the budget.

As is custom, the council has been reviewing the budget Coleman submitted in August. From the beginning, council members wanted to lower Coleman's proposed 6.5 percent levy increase and avoid his $1 million suggested cut to the fire department.

Coleman said Monday he now supports a 5.5 percent levy increase, a $1 million drop, which would be possible with the extra $2 million. The levy reduction would cut the proposed increase on the city property tax bill from $44 to $37 on a median-valued $149,000 home. (Exclusive of increased fees proposed by the mayor.)

About $1.4 million of the newfound money comes from tax-increment financing districts. Once a district is established, property taxes from the area are directed toward projects within the district. But the amount that can be used for the projects is capped and anything above that is considered excess that can be directed into the city's general treasury. Due to a complex brew of circumstances, including state tax law changes, the excess collections this year exceeded projections by the $1.4 million.

The rest of the windfall comes from a refinancing of bonds and the school district's hiring of three full-time police officers.

What the mayor didn't note in Monday's announcement was his plan to decommission Rescue Squad 2 from the new fire station at W. 7th Street and Randolph Avenue. The move frees up staff to shift among fire stations and cover staffing gaps. The decommissioning leaves the city with two rescue squads.

Council members have never been warm to the mayor's plan and the powerful firefighters union pushed hard against the cut, saying it would increase response times.

Because St. Paul has a strong-mayor system, Coleman has broad powers to manage spending without specific council approval, but the camps had been working together until now.

"This is the way our office sees the budget," said Joe Campbell, Coleman's spokesman, Asked if the mayor has four council votes to pass it, Campbell said, "I'm not sure that's been decided."

The mayor would use $298,000 to fill three vacant police positions, restore $184,000 in personnel money to the fire budget and add $55,000 to hire an additional inspector for the Department of Safety and Inspections. He also would use $376,000 to avoid cutting the equivalent of 6.8 full-time positions in the library system.

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

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