St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on Thursday pledged to fund a neighborhood safety office, affordable housing programs and career development initiatives in an optimistic budget address — a stark contrast to the tone of last year's effort to triage city finances in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis.

In a virtual address, Carter proposed a $713 million budget, a nearly 13% increase from 2021.

"While last year's budget was about bracing ourselves against the most devastating blows of the global crises swirling all around us, our financial discipline — along with significant help from our partners in federal government — have returned us … to a point of preparedness to imagine and invest in the St. Paul we are building for the future," Carter said.

The boost would be fueled in part by a proposed property tax levy increase of 6.9%, or $11.4 million, which would translate into an additional $10.58 a month for a median value home, the mayor said. The levy is the total amount the city collects in property taxes, not what individual property owners pay.

St. Paul, like many local governments across the country, did not raise its levy in 2021 to avoid adding expenses for families already facing financial hardships during the peak of pandemic-related shutdowns. The city also avoided layoffs or dipping into reserves.

That left the city stretched thin when it came to services. St. Paul cut 91 full-time equivalent positions from its 2021 budget by leaving positions unfilled and cutting hours.

Carter's proposal for 2022 includes pay for about 115 more jobs than last year — bringing the city's total to 3,037 full-time equivalent employees. But John McCarthy, director of St. Paul's Office of Financial Services, said 26 of those positions are for short-term initiatives funded by American Rescue Plan dollars.

Millions in federal funds

Carter described his broad vision for spending the $166 million St. Paul is getting from the $1.9 trillion federal relief package, though the City Council will have to approve each expenditure.

The mayor's plan would allocate $40 million for public safety programs; $40 million for housing; $40 million for job and career readiness; $18 million for updating city services; $15 million for financial programs to help provide economic stability to residents; $10 million for staff processing and planning how to best use the federal funds; and $3.6 million to promote COVID-19 vaccines and public health.

A major bump in funding for street maintenance was notably absent from the list.

In a July 30 memo to Carter, the council said a priority for 2022 was a plan to fix city roadways. Public Works Department staff have warned repeatedly more than half of city streets will be in dire shape in the next 10 to 20 years if significantly more money is not allocated.

"While it would be easy to simply spend $166 million in American Rescue Plan funding on bricks, concrete and the long list of immediate needs we have before us today, that approach would be shortsighted," Carter said in his address.

In a news conference afterward, Carter said some of the aid money could indirectly go toward street improvements through his proposed job development efforts, which could bolster public works staff. His budget would boost the street reconstruction fund by $2.5 million in 2022, and state aid for public works projects will increase by $8.8 million, a city spokesperson said.

Public safety proposals

The mayor, who is up for re-election in November, used his budget address to remind residents of programs he has championed during his first term while announcing a handful of possible initiatives.

Carter said he hopes to use $600,000 from St. Paul's Affordable Housing Trust Fund to provide support to low-income homeowners, who may not have the same access to financial assistance as renters.

He also pledged to create an Office of Neighborhood Safety, which would aim to curb violence with strategies and initiatives separate from the criminal justice system. In May, a mayoral task force recommended St. Paul establish a city-staffed agency similar to Minneapolis' Office of Violence Prevention.

Since taking office, Carter has advocated for "a community-first" approach to public safety, though some resulting programs have been slow to roll out. The Office of Neighborhood Safety — a proposed $1.1 million unit housed in the City Attorney's Office — would oversee some existing initiatives like the community ambassadors program.

Calls for alternative emergency responses increased after the murder of George Floyd, but St. Paul also saw a 25% increase in violent crime in 2020. Carter faced criticism from interest groups that often were at odds over the role of police and resources they receive.

Budget cuts in 2021 left the St. Paul Police Department short-staffed, with $3.7 million in attrition. On Thursday, Carter said he would provide funding to allow the department to replace retired officers. His budget also includes a permanent funding stream for the city's Law Enforcement Career Pathways Academy, which aims to diversify police ranks.

The mayor separately proposed spending more than $32.2 million in the next two years to start major construction work at the Hamline Midway Library, the North End Community Center and Fire Station 7 — all council priorities.

The council can set a levy that's different from Carter's proposal, and in a July 30 memo to the mayor recommended keeping the increase between 2% and 4%. Members are expected to vote on a maximum levy increase in mid-September and approve the final budget in December.