St. Paul City Council members are likely to sign off on Mayor Melvin Carter’s $1.7 million public safety plan when they approve the 2020 budget next month.
Carter proposed a $622 million budget in August, and added the supplemental public safety budget Nov. 20 after a monthslong spike in gun violence in the city. Most council members have expressed support for the mayor’s plan, which includes money for youth employment and outreach, recreation center programs and streetscape improvements.
“I think that the supplemental reflected a lot of community and council work we’ve been taking on the past year,” said Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson. “I’m feeling hopeful we can all come to agreement.”
The council is scheduled to conduct its annual Truth in Taxation public hearing on Dec. 4 and to approve the final 2020 budget on Dec. 11.
Council Member Dai Thao said he supports more spending on youth employment and community ambassadors to reduce violence, but also wants the council to pass a resolution launching a gunshot detection technology pilot program. Thao, who has been a vocal critic of Carter’s decision not to include ShotSpotter technology in the 2020 budget, said he’s looking for a private sponsor to fund the pilot.
“We have an immediate issue and we need to implement immediate technology while we work on long-term implementation and prevention,” he said. “And I’m not against that — I’ve actually been advocating from the beginning that we need a multiprong approach.”
Council President Amy Brendmoen said it’s unlikely the council would approve a pilot program without Carter’s support.
“I would just rather throw our heft behind the things that we are in agreement on, because we can’t wait,” she said.
St. Paul has had 30 homicides this year, 27 of which were shooting deaths. As of mid-November, police had responded to more than 1,000 calls of shots fired.
In presentations to the council and exchanges with the mayor, Police Chief Todd Axtell has asked for funding for ShotSpotter and for more officers. Last year, Carter and council members drew criticism for a last-minute decision to add nine new officer positions to the 2019 budget; the proposed 2020 budget cuts five positions, bringing the total sworn force to 630.
The 2020 budget includes about $4 million in cuts across every city department. After pushback from council members, Carter reversed a proposed cut to free recreation-center programming by using the supplemental public safety budget to pay for it.
Council members said they are still discussing what will stay and what will go when they approve the budget next month. Nelson said she wants grant funding for education on the $15 minimum wage. Thao said he’s not convinced the city should spend $750,000 on electric vehicle charging hubs. Council Member Chris Tolbert said he wants to make sure the library system has enough money to maintain its collection.
Though priorities vary, council members agree that they want to keep the property-tax levy increase low after years of double-digit hikes. Carter initially proposed a nearly 5% levy increase, or about $7.6 million more than in 2019; the extra spending on public safety would bring it to nearly 6%.
“For this year, we just wanted to try and keep it as low as possible,” Tolbert said, noting the pressure that tax bills can put on St. Paul families. “It’s real money.”
The levy is the amount of money the city collects in property taxes, not the amount that individual property owners pay. In September, the council set the maximum levy increase at about 22% to pay for garbage pickup if residents voted to nix the city’s organized trash-collection system.
Residents’ property-tax statements reflect the 22% increase, so it’s likely their final bills will be lower. Still, some say years of growing tax bills are taking a toll.
Sherry Ladig and her husband, Don, bought a fixer-upper in Merriam Park in the early 1990s and have watched its value quadruple in the years since. Their estimated 2020 property tax bill, including city, county, school board and other taxing districts, is more than $7,000 — “a pretty big bite” for a self-employed couple whose household income taps out at about $50,000 a year, Sherry Ladig said.
“We live fairly frugally, but I’d say that one of the very biggest budget items we have is our property taxes,” she said, “and it appears that they are not going to go down.”