A divided St. Paul City Council approved its 2020 budget Wednesday with a $9 million property tax bump to pay for road repairs, recreation center programs and community ambassadors to help curb a spike in gun violence.
The more than $620 million budget includes about $1.7 million in public safety spending that Mayor Melvin Carter proposed in November, after several violent months that brought the city’s homicide total to a 25-year high.
Council President Amy Brendmoen and council members Mitra Jalali Nelson, Rebecca Noecker and Chris Tolbert voted for the budget and levy. Three council members — Jane Prince, Dai Thao and Kassim Busuri — voted against it, citing the burden of property taxes on low-income residents in their wards.
“I will vote no on this budget because it does not cover the basics, and it funds extras that my ward cannot afford,” Prince said.
The supplemental public safety budget includes money for a slew of programs, including youth employment and outreach, streetscape improvements and incentives for landlords to rent to people with criminal histories.
Missing are the additional officers and gunshot detection technology that Chief Todd Axtell requested, and Prince noted in a statement to her fellow council members that the budget “doesn’t represent a strong partnership between the mayor and the chief of police.”
Nelson said the supplemental budget is “a really holistic step forward” after the community pushback that followed a decision to include nine new officer positions in the 2019 budget. The 2020 budget eliminates five of those positions.
“I’m voting yes for all the progress we’ve made, and to keep building on it,” Nelson said.
The extra money for public safety, coupled with the budget that Carter proposed in August, would bring the property tax levy to more than $165 million — up 5.85% from 2019.
Property owners will likely end up paying less than what’s listed on their estimated property tax bills, because the estimates were calculated using the maximum 22% levy increase the council passed in September in case the city had to pay for trash collection out of its tax revenue. After years of double-digit levy increases, council members said they wanted to keep the levy as low as possible in 2020.
The levy is the amount of money the city collects in property taxes. The bill that individual property owners pay depends on their property value.
Mac-Groveland resident Danny Uhlemann has seen the value of his house jump about $40,000 in less than three years. His family loves St. Paul and wants to stay, he said, but he’s concerned their tax bills will continue to rise.
“I could understand if we were just having some really awesome social services and our schools were just thriving,” Uhlemann said. “But it doesn’t feel that way.”
Though residents say years of rising property tax bills are taking a toll, only a few people who attended a Truth in Taxation hearing on Dec. 4 came to talk about taxes. The nearly 50 people who spoke at the public hearing brought up issues ranging from climate change and homelessness to public safety and enforcement of the city’s minimum wage and Earned Sick and Safe Time laws.
The 2020 budget includes more than $4 million in cuts, although city officials found ways to avoid some of them: The supplemental public safety budget includes $225,000 to keep after-school recreation center programs free, and the city’s parking fund will fill a gap in the library collections budget.
“I am especially pleased that the work we did resulted in restoring funding for some really critical programs that I know we were all concerned about when we saw the original budget,” Noecker said. “Those are critical investments at a time when families in our community are struggling.”
The budget vote is one of the last actions the council will take in 2019. Brendmoen said council members plan to take up police staffing, housing affordability and homelessness, among other issues, in the new year.
“As we close the books on 2019 and look forward to 2020 and the conversations, we’ll have about a week to take a breath and then we’ll be back at it again,” she said.