Police department funding dominated St. Paul’s truth-in-taxation hearing on Wednesday with dozens of residents, mostly in e-mails, demanding the City Council slash the police budget and increase funding for public health, education, housing and other social safety-net programs.
A handful of people chose to speak at Wednesday’s virtual meeting, which happened the day after Police Chief Todd Axtell fired an officer who shot and wounded an unarmed man Saturday night. The council meeting lasted less than an hour, but Council President Amy Brendmoen said they have received more than 130 e-mails.
The tone of e-mails and comments ranged from angry and disgusted at police actions to measured, with many saying officers should not be the sole responders to the community’s complex social and mental health problems.
“It is appalling to see how much funding we spend on police. It is clear what our priorities are as a city — intimidate the less fortunate and marginalized communities through increased policing,” wrote Nicolaas VanMeerten. “We can do better and the City Council has the power to make our city better.”
Another resident expressed anger at the use of tear gas on protesters in the aftermath of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
Others, including Elizabeth Andrews, struck a softer tone.
“I would strongly prefer that the City of St. Paul decrease the police budget and spend that money on other interventions and services that support community safety,” Andrews wrote.
Andrews said that while “Defund the Police” initially sounded like an extreme position, the more she learned about it the more it made sense.
“Why are we asking our police officers to perform mental health and social worker services when they are not trained to do so? Wouldn’t that money be better spent sending the right kind of responders to the scene?” Andrews wrote.
Last month, Mayor Melvin Carter launched a commission that will study the lowest-priority 911 calls — things like loud parties, barking dogs and shoplifters being held by store security personnel — and suggest alternative ways to respond.
The commission, which will return in May with recommendations for the 2022 budget, isn’t expected to address how the city responds to violent crime.
Some e-mails about the 2021 budget expressed support of law enforcement, arguing that in a time of rising crime, police need more resources, not less. Adee Moua raised the concern that an under-resourced police department will embolden repeat offenders.
“My family — and everyone’s family — deserves to be safe,” Moua wrote. “It is just wrong to cut the police department during this time of such great need.”
The city’s proposed 2021 budget is $627 million, which is about $9.4 million below the previous year. About $104.7 million of the general fund goes to the police department, a slight decrease from the previous year.
The budget includes citywide cuts but no increase to the property tax levy — the amount of money the city collects in taxes each year. The proposed levy for the city, including libraries and the Port Authority, would be $165.2 million in 2021.
The City Council will vote on the final budget later this month.