After receiving unanimous City Council approval for his 2019 budget, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said he’s ready to move forward on the new initiatives and progressive policies authorized by the $600 million spending plan.
“One of the laws of the world is to whom much is given, much is expected,” Carter said in an interview. “St. Paul taxpayers just gave us an enormous opportunity, and we know that that means a whole lot of work to do moving forward.”
The budget includes a double-digit property tax levy increase, driven by inflation, that captures the city’s growing tax base and rising property values to the tune of $14.7 million. The majority of the additional tax revenue, plus cuts within city departments, will go to maintaining City Hall’s current workforce and services.
Carter has described the city’s budget as a “values document” that reflects residents’ priorities. But it also reflects his priorities — and makes good on many of his campaign promises — including more spending on affordable housing, helping low-income residents keep more of their money and broadening access to libraries and recreation centers.
“Those are all things that show a sensitivity to the community’s needs,” said Arline Datu, a Second Ward resident and leader with the advocacy group Isaiah. “I think that hasn’t been demonstrated before, and that, I think, is what’s good about the budget.”
Tax hike spurs anxiety
Though residents have expressed support for the budget, others are anxious about rising taxes — and not sure that city services are worth the cost.
Council Member Dan Bostrom, who will retire at the end of 2018, said in an interview that he’s heard from constituents “that are not particularly happy” about the tax levy increase, which he voted for, along with the rest of the council.
“It’s a significant increase, and a lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck,” Bostrom said.
Carter started talking to residents and council members months before his budget address to find out how they thought the city should spend its money. The budget he proposed in August included their ideas alongside his.
“It felt very bold and visionary and really, I think, putting the money where his mouth had been in his campaign and up until that moment,” said Council President Amy Brendmoen.
Carter’s budget included money for things individual council members wanted, including help for small businesses, bicycle infrastructure and reopening a shuttered recreation center on the East Side. It also included initiatives that will affect the whole city including an affordable housing trust fund and an Office of Financial Empowerment that will house Carter’s college savings account program.
Most council members have expressed support for the new initiatives, but Bostrom said he’s skeptical.
“I think it would’ve been a whole lot better if some of these proposals had been fleshed out a little bit more,” he said. “A lot of these things they’re proposing, nobody’s done it, and nobody has any kind of a track record as to how successful it’s going to be.”
The version of the budget that the council passed was nearly identical to what Carter proposed.
“Residents should feel really good about the fact that the council and the mayor are working well together, and we figured out how to cut money out of the budget and still maintain all of our shared goals,” said Council Member Jane Prince.
A week before the council was scheduled to vote on the budget, Carter and council members announced that they would increase the property tax levy by 10.46 percent, down from an 11.5 percent maximum levy. They also announced what soon became the most controversial part of the budget: hiring nine police officers to backfill the positions of officers promoted into commander and investigator positions.
Carter and council members said rethinking how the city invests in public safety, and improving residents’ relationships with police, will be a priority in 2019.
The work ahead
Even residents who came to City Hall to protest hiring police officers said they were happy with other parts of the budget — and some said the city should be spending even more.
John Slade, an organizer with the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH), said the millions of dollars the city plans to spend on building and preserving affordable housing isn’t nearly enough.
“It’s a very important first step, and it’s great that it’s there, and it’s not going to meet our entire housing need,” he said.
St. Paul Bicycle Coalition co-chairman Andy Singer said he’s happy to see $500,000 in the budget for bikeways, but it pales in comparison to what the city is spending elsewhere.
“I certainly approve of the $10 million for affordable housing,” he said, “but you realize how little this money is overall.”
Carter said he’s thinking about new jobs that need to be filled, policies that need to be reworked and plans that need to be made — and he’s already talking about his next budget.
“My hope is that people know we’re celebrating the passage of this budget, and they know we’re not taking time off — that we’re getting right to work doing all the work that they told us was important,” he said.