The St. Paul City Council on Wednesday approved its 2019 budget, with money for nine new police officers despite opposition from speakers at last week’s public hearing.
The approximately $600 million budget makes big investments in affordable housing, eliminates library fines and raises the property tax levy by more than 10 percent. Yet much of the discussion has centered on whether to expand the police ranks. The council voted unanimously to spend $900,000 to promote sworn officers into commander and investigator positions and backfill the jobs they vacate, as well as to support the Police Department’s Mental Health Unit.
Dozens of activists and residents spoke against adding more officers at a Dec. 5 public hearing, and some returned to the council chambers Wednesday. Before the vote, council members acknowledged the opposition. Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson proposed creating a citizen-led cabinet to address public safety and policing issues, and other council members said they’ll support it.
“It feels like the compromise we reached in adding officers was an important one,” said Council Member Jane Prince, noting the city’s growing population and increasing number of 911 calls. She added, “I know that people need to feel more faith in our police department.”
Mayor Melvin Carter’s budget proposal, released in August, included money for new commander positions in the sex crimes unit and downtown St. Paul, as well as for four new investigator positions in the property crimes division. The mayor rejected Police Chief Todd Axtell’s request for 50 more officers.
The new hires included in the 2019 budget will expand the force from 626 to 635 sworn officers, including three new mental health officers.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker said Wednesday that she wants an adequately funded police department that’s also accountable to the public. “I don’t think it’s an either/or,” she said.
At existing staffing levels, each of the Police Department’s sex crimes investigators is handling about 250 cases each year, Noecker said.
“That is simply unacceptable,” she said.
The 2019 budget is Carter’s first as mayor. His office organized public input sessions throughout the summer, giving residents the opportunity to learn how the budget works and give opinions on how the city should spend its money.
Not all attendees felt their voices were heard. East Side resident Carlos Garcia Velasco said after the vote Wednesday that council members made the decision to add police officers without considering public opinion.
“It’s time for us to be more bold and courageous,” Velasco said. “We need to shift the power back to us.”
The budget also pays for a number of programs and initiatives proposed by Carter, including: a new “financial empowerment” office for low-income residents; the elimination of library fines; dedicated funding for bikeways; expanded recreation center hours, and legal support for immigrants.
Money for these initiatives will come, in part, from an increase in the property tax levy — most of the city’s revenue each year comes from property taxes and local government aid from the state. The 2019 levy increase will be 10.46 percent over 2018, or about $15 million.
On Wednesday, the council also unanimously approved a $61.2 million Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) budget, which includes a nearly $4.2 million tax levy.
One of the city’s most substantial new investments is in affordable housing, which council members decided in January would be their main focus in 2018. The budget includes $71 million in affordable housing investments over the next three years, including the creation of a $10 million affordable housing trust fund.
Council Member Chris Tolbert, who chairs the HRA, called the money for affordable housing a “historic investment.”
“We still have a lot to do,” he said. “This is an important first step.”