In the first budget plan of his administration, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter last week proposed a $606 million 2019 city budget — including an 11.5 percent property tax levy increase. That percentage could give property owners pause — especially following the 24 percent hike that came during the current year.
Carter’s budget is about $37 million more than this year, mostly driven by inflation and contract increases for public safety and other employees. This year’s 24 percent bump was caused, in part, by a court ruling that required the city to move part of a special right of way assessment back onto the regular property tax.
Carter’s proposed increase would generate about $16 million more in tax revenue; it would translate to an increase of about $76 per year for a median $186,000 home. The hike wouldn’t necessarily mean an 11 percent-across-the board tax increase; some might pay about the same, or more, depending upon increases in property values.
Still, we urge the mayor and the City Council to trim back that increase to keep taxes affordable across all income groups.
It’s especially important to strive for smaller increases because the city is poised to join Minneapolis in adopting a $15 hourly minimum wage that will increase costs for businesses over and above any tax hikes. City officials should keep that in mind in their efforts to attract new businesses and support existing ones.
In addition, an 11 percent hike would likely come on top of increases proposed by Ramsey County and the school district, which is seeking its own levy increase from voters this fall.
That said, several initiatives Carter outlined fit well with city needs. They include the top concerns raised by about 300 citizens during seven budget meetings the mayor held in July. Carter reported that the top investment priorities to emerge were affordable housing, expanding free programming at recreation centers and support services for small businesses. All are wisely part of his budget plan.
In the housing area, he recommends a new $10 million housing trust fund and $2 million in ongoing investments for production of new units, preservation of existing affordable housing, and protecting residents through emergency assistance and other housing efforts. Combined with existing city and federal resources, that will amount to more than $71 million in housing spending over three years to meet the expected population growth.
To help support families, prevent crime and improve public safety, Carter seeks to triple city spending on free out-of-school programs at rec centers to $300,000 and proposes another $700,000 for rec center improvements.
And to support job and business development, he recommends more than $2.5 million to help businesses start and grow, including those in cultural corridors across the city.
The mayor also wants to establish an Office of Financial Empowerment to address causes of financial instability and reduce poverty. Carter told the editorial board that the effort will help fulfill smart advice a mentor once gave him: “Instead of looking at how low-income children and families can beat the odds, we should change the odds.”
On public safety, Carter wants to focus on the best deployment of resources. He suggests adding mental health co-responders and boosting the investigative capacity in the police department. He would also use basic life support service workers in the fire department to free up firefighters and EMS staff for emergency calls. As for infrastructure, he would step up the schedule to rebuild and repair streets, sidewalks and bikeways, as well as to address emerald ash borer problems with city trees.
As Carter noted in his budget address, his plan is a “only the beginning” of a process that, after a series of public hearings and consideration by the City Council, will produce a final 2019 budget by the end of the year. We encourage residents to add their voices to help balance keeping tax increases low with needed city investments.