In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and after civil unrest led to millions of dollars in damage, state and local governments in Minnesota face increased and unexpected demands as well as decreased revenue. Reflecting those fiscal realities, this week St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter offered a reasonable, pared-down 2021 budget recommendation.
In an online address on Thursday, Carter called “zero” the most important number in his budget proposal, saying that despite a $20 million deficit he recommends no property tax levy increase, no city staff layoffs and no raiding reserve funds for 2021. Those are prudent decisions that acknowledge the impact the combination of crises has had on taxpayers.
In St. Paul, more than 70,000 people have filed for unemployment since March, business have closed or reduced hours, 130 people have died from COVID-19, and there’s growing homelessness as many struggle to pay rent, mortgages and taxes. In addition, the city is recovering from fires and looting that damaged or destroyed more than 300 businesses following the tragic death of George Floyd.
Under the mayor’s plan, the city’s total budget would drop from the current $636 million to $627 million next year — a 1.4% reduction. And the flat tax levy translates into an annual tax decrease of about $32 for the median-valued $215,800 home.
“This budget will result in significant pain points for our community,” Carter said. “Our city employees will likely face reduced hours and reduced titles. We’ve already enacted a voluntary 10% pay reduction for every member of our senior leadership team.”
Although the budget caution is necessary, Carter and the City Council should reassess the impact on police staffing. Shots-fired calls have more than doubled this year in St. Paul, and homicides are up from 12 last summer at this time to 21.
The fire and police departments will receive among the smallest percentages of year-to-year budget reductions. But the ramifications of the $3.7 million proposed cut to the Police Department — after including inflationary costs for salaries and benefits — is concerning.
In a meeting with the Star Tribune Editorial Board, Carter and his staff said that the city is authorized to have 630 sworn officers, and currently has 620, with 580 available for deployment. He said that more officers will be available to respond to serious crimes as more non-sworn staff are dispatched to lower priority 911 emergency calls. And he remains committed to implementing his Community First Public Safety initiative, which funds alternatives to traditional policing.
Still, Police Chief Todd Axtell noted in a Wednesday e-mail to employees that the recommended budget would mean about 40 officer positions would go unfilled — the authorized force would be reduced by 10, and another 30 would be lost due to attrition, including the seven school resource officers the school district decided to eliminate.
There’s still time for the budget to change before its adopted in December. Among other issues, the mayor and council need to work with Axtell to ensure the city’s basic public safety needs can be met in 2021.