St. Paul residents who packed into City Hall Wednesday evening said they don't mind paying more taxes for things like affordable housing and recreation centers, but they don't want their tax dollars going toward hiring more police officers.
At an annual City Council public hearing typically dominated by complaints about rising property taxes, dozens of residents and activists gathered to speak against a 2019 budget item that would promote some St. Paul police officers into commander and investigator positions and backfill their old jobs.
Martin Hernandez, a member of the West Side Community Organization board, noted in his testimony to the council that the Minneapolis City Council is trimming its Police Department budget to fund community-based initiatives to reduce violence.
"Take it off the table," he said. "Move the money to more housing and things like that."
The 2019 budget includes $900,000 to support the Police Department's Mental Health Unit and hire police commanders, investigators and officers.
Mayor Melvin Carter did not initially propose expanding the police force, despite police Chief Todd Axtell's request for 50 new officers. Instead, the mayor asked for money to promote sworn officers to commander positions in the sex crimes unit and downtown St. Paul, as well as to form four new investigator positions in the property crimes division.
The council's budget, unveiled Wednesday, includes money to promote nine officers to investigator and commander positions and backfill the positions they vacate. The force will grow from 626 to 635 sworn officers, including three new mental health officers.
Money for public safety is just one of a slew of new line items in the 2019 budget. At a news conference Wednesday morning, Carter said the approximately $600 million budget reflects the priorities of St. Paul leaders and residents.
"What we've heard loud and clear is that we all share a big vision for St. Paul, a big vision for our future, and this budget helps us to realize this vision," he said.
The budget includes a property tax levy increase of 10.46 percent, or $14.7 million in new property tax revenue. The council approved a maximum 11.5 percent property tax levy increase in September but pledged to get that number down before finalizing the budget.
The typical St. Paul homeowner will pay $67 more in city property taxes in 2019. But plenty of residents will pay more and say the tax levy increase is still too high.
"A couple months ago it came out that they would cap it at 11.5 percent, and now they're coming back with 10.46 percent, like they're doing us a favor," said North End resident Erik Solis, 35, who is a maintenance worker for a liquor distribution company. "I don't really believe that's much of a break for us."
Though the levy increase will be lower than initially proposed, the budget will still cover new programs and services that Carter requested in his budget proposal in August, including $500,000 in dedicated bikeway funding, $333,000 for a new Office of Financial Empowerment, a $10 million housing trust fund and the elimination of library fines.
The council will vote on the budget Dec. 12.
"With this city budget proposal, we are making investments that are needed next year while ensuring our city is poised for the future," said Council President Amy Brendmoen.
The 2019 levy increase reflects new tax capacity the city gained as property values have risen, city officials said. The city also levies a tax through its Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which the council set at a maximum of nearly $4.5 million in September but was able to cut in half through cost savings within the HRA.
The levy is the amount of money that the city collects in taxes, not the amount that individual property owners pay. Last year the levy rose 24 percent, in large part because the city shifted street maintenance costs from assessment bills to tax bills.
Many people who spoke at the hearing Wednesday evening expressed support for raising taxes to pay for services such as recreation center expansions, new affordable housing and legal help for immigrants.
After years of budget cuts at the state and federal levels, tax increases are needed at the local level, said John Slade, an organizer with the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing.
"It's really the only tool the city has to maintain quality," he said.