The first hints of challenge to Mayor Betsy Hodges’ new budget plan are surfacing among some of the most seasoned and powerful members of the Minneapolis City Council.
Several council members said they want more funding for public safety, affordable housing and neighborhood programs. The council’s president, Barb Johnson, was the most critical, contrasting proposed spending on bike lanes and new city equity staffers with public safety needs around the city.
“These are serious things,” Johnson said. “Way more serious in my book than protected bike lanes and equity positions and all that kind of thing. Our No. 1 priority is public safety.”
Hodges presented her budget blueprint in August and offered the most detailed glimpse yet into the priorities of a new mayor who campaigned heavily on her past experience as the council’s budget chairwoman.
The council’s seven new members and its half-dozen veterans have until December to approve the mayor’s $1.2 billion budget outline. While most members largely agree with the mayor’s spending priorities, the new budget is emerging as a first big test of Hodges’ relationship with the new council.
The mayor has called for a 2.4 percent, or $6.7 million, increase in the city’s levy, the amount collected through property taxes. Some on the council are waiting to see how that will affect individual property owners, who are slated to get tax notices in mid-November.
A city analysis says 57 percent of owner-occupied, residential properties would get a tax decrease, while 43 percent would see an increase.
Seventy-five percent of apartment properties would experience a property tax increase, 65 percent of them experiencing a rise of under 10 percent.
And 83 percent of commercial properties would see no change or a decrease in property taxes.
“We don’t have a sense for what the public’s appetite is for an increase,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman, who anticipates higher taxes for some of her constituents and commercial property owners. She’s concerned that while keeping the levy flat would be difficult, the mayor’s budget also includes new spending. “It is not simply to keep up with inflation or to pay off debt,” Goodman said.
While overall city spending is rising, less of the money spent on City Hall discretionary services will come from property taxes. Road repair debt and Park Board spending will consume much of the tax levy increase.
Hodges’ plan for the Police Department includes about $5.7 million in additional funding, a 4 percent increase from the $148 million budget. That bump includes nearly $2 million to hire 20 part-time community service officers and 18 cadets, along with money for body cameras and a new data request specialist. The plan boosts the number of sworn officers to 860, up from 850 in this year’s budget.
The increase in Fire Department spending is smaller, a 1.5 percent increase to the $60 million budget. Staffing levels would hold steady at 406 sworn firefighters.
The fire union has criticized the plan, saying that more firefighters are needed to keep up with a growing demand for emergency medical response and bolster a department that’s seen an uptick in injuries. Fire Chief John Fruetel has said he could use at least 418 firefighters.
Council Members Andrew Johnson and Blong Yang have both said they support going beyond Hodges’ plan and hiring more firefighters. Yang is also interested in hiring more police, though he hasn’t specified how much he’d like to see the force grow.
Council President Barb Johnson said Hodges’ budget “does nothing” meaningful to expand either department and is concerned about how the city is tackling crime.
She said the city is too wedded to keeping police staffing levels at or below the budgeted level.
“We’re seeing an uptick in crime; in north Minneapolis it’s particularly troublesome, and in downtown, with all the high-profile stuff going on,” she said. “We have to do our level best to keep those [police] classes coming and not be worried about going over our number.”
Many council members said they were interested in increasing the annual contribution to the city’s affordable housing trust fund, which subsidizes new housing units for lower-income residents. The city has repeatedly missed its goal of $10 million in annual funding. Hodges’ budget would provide a total of $9.1 million in city and outside funds.
“I consider it a great investment,” said council budget chairman John Quincy, who hopes to find funding from elsewhere in the development agency’s budget. “Because every dollar we put in yields $10 back.”
Council Member Kevin Reich said the city needs to provide a larger contribution to put the fund at $10 million. He said the demand for affordable housing is high, and the city has a unique responsibility to help.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “When it comes to housing stock, if the municipality doesn’t address those issues, who will?”
The future of neighborhood funding will also likely dominate debate over the mayor’s budget, since a taxing district earmarked for Target Center and neighborhood purposes is expected to produce millions more than expected over the next several years.
Some of the city’s 70 neighborhood groups expected that they would receive much of the excess, but Hodges has proposed spending next year’s share on expanding the city’s neighborhood department, planning for closure of the city’s port and hiring two communications staffers. Neighborhoods would see a largely inflationary increase.
Council Members Johnson and Cam Gordon recently urged the city’s largest neighborhood organization to advocate for more funding. Others on the council are skeptical, particularly since the neighborhoods collectively are sitting on $16 million that hasn’t been spent.
“I would want to understand what needs are not being met by the current funding,” Council Member Lisa Bender said. “Particularly given that there’s so many organizations that have funding unspent.”
Council President Johnson and Council Member Lisa Goodman were most critical of some proposed new spending. The mayor wants two new positions in the city coordinator’s office to ensure the city departments are treating all people fairly, for example, as well as $750,000 for protected bike lanes.
Johnson said she believes the budget should take care of core services, such as police and fire, before adding spending in other areas.
Goodman says she is concerned the new spending makes the levy hike too high. “If some of this new spending was taken out, it might be slightly more tolerable,” she said.
Johnson isn’t sold on Hodges’ plan to provide organics pickup at Minneapolis’ single-family homes. She said forcing homeowners to shoulder most of the associated fees — an additional $48 per household — is unfair, especially because some may not want to participate.
“Our people in north Minneapolis aren’t even up to speed [on recycling,] and now you’re going to put organics in the mix, so you feel good?” she said.
Quincy said it is important for the city to expand its recycling program to include organics, and the city should work hard on public education to ensure more people adopt it.
“You have to provide the service before you can see an increase in usage,” Quincy said. “So there’s going to be a gap that people are going to have an issue with.”