The Saint Paul City Council on December 9 approved a $633 million city budget for 2021. However, the 5-2 vote does not end the debate over such contentious issues as police reform and the city’s response to the fiscal challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

City Council members Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang voted against the budget, saying it did not go far enough in defunding the Saint Paul Police Department in favor of alternative methods for addressing crime. The police budget in 2021 is $104.7 million, or $800,000 less than in 2020. Among departmental cuts was the police training academy’s 2020 session, a decision that Yang called “bold” but may reduce the city’s police force by as many as 40 officers next year as cops retire or resign and are not replaced.

Jalali criticized the 2021 budget for maintaining the status quo in the wake of the civil unrest and the demands for change following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody last May. According to her, more needs to be done about the “overpolicing” of communities of color.

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“I’m struggling to understand why (the 2021 budget) would show so little movement on the most prominent conversation about police funding we’ve had in recent memory,” Jalali said. She called for disbanding the police department’s K-9 unit and for having “less officers period.”

“We’ve definitely let a lot of people down,” Yang said.

Other City Council members said efforts to reform the police department will continue. Some cited concerns about rising crime. The city had its 33rd homicide of the year on December 21—three more than in all of 2019.

Council members also cited the city’s new Community First Public Safety initiative, which provides an array of alternatives for preventing crime, including the hiring of community ambassadors. A Community First Public Safety Commission was recently formed, and its 48 members will be studying alternative ways to respond to “lower priority” calls to the emergency management system’s 911 line.

The commission has been tasked with making recommendations by May 2021—recommendations that could be incorporated in the city’s 2022 budget. Mayor Melvin Carter has called for that budget to include money for more social workers, mental health professionals and housing counselors to work with the police.

City taxes and fees see slight overall increase

The Saint Paul City Council approved a city budget for 2021 that holds the line on property taxes. Some homeowners may see the city’s share of their property taxes decrease next year as a result. However, the fees Saint Paul residents pay for city services are scheduled to increase, offsetting some of those savings.

The median-value home in Saint Paul increased from $199,800 to $215,800 over the past year. However, the city’s share of the property taxes on that home will decrease $19—from $906 in 2020 to $888 in 2021.

Meanwhile, the city’s street maintenance assessment on that home will increase from $101 to $102 to cover the cost of street lighting, street and alley sweeping, and street and alley seal coating.

Water charges on the average home will increase from $306 in 2020 to $313 in 2021. Sanitary sewer charges will increase from $305 to $314 due to a 3.5 percent increase in the volume fee. Storm sewer charges will increase from $101 to $105.

The city recycling fee will increase from $58 to $60. The residential solid waste collection fee will increase from $25 to $27. That fee is in addition to what homeowners pay for city-mandated trash collection service.

The total city taxes and fees on the average home will be $1,809 in 2021, or $6 more than in 2020. What a homeowner actually pays in city taxes and fees will vary depending on the assessed value of the home, the level of water usage and any special assessments.

— Jane McClure

“In supporting this budget, I’m absolutely not supporting the status quo with regard to public safety,” said Ward 2 City Council member Rebecca Noecker. According to her, the City Council will continue to look at police spending thoughtfully instead of “indiscriminately hacking away” at the department’s budget.

The budget for the police department in 2021 includes an estimated $3.7 million in savings due to attrition. To meet that target, according to council member Jane Prince, 30 to 40 police officers may have to retire or resign before any new officers are hired. She said she is concerned about what that would mean for police response times.

The majority of the City Council praised the 2021 budget and the property tax levy that will support it. The levy has been set at $165 million next year, the same as in 2020, holding the line on property taxes.

Ward 1 City Council member Dai Thao called the budget “realistic and solid,” given the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the steep decline in city revenue it has caused. City departments had to cut their budgets mid-year in 2020 and were were planning for a deficit of almost $20 million going into 2021.

Ward 1 City Council member Dai Thao called the budget “realistic and solid,” given the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the steep decline in city revenue it has caused. City departments had to cut their budgets mid-year in 2020 and were were planning for a deficit of almost $20 million going into 2021. The 2021 city budget as approved is $3 million less than the amount the city spent in 2020.

The mayor and City Council wanted to avoid laying off city staff and dipping into budget reserves, and they succeeded in that while restoring some funding for libraries, recreation centers and street work. With an array of budget shifts and other changes, the council was able to add back $225,000 for parks and recreation, $344,000 for street work and $310,000 for library hours.

With money saved through delays in purchases, canceled conferences and travel, and a postponement in a Community First Public Safety contract, the city was able to shift funds to parks and recreation and library materials. The Saint Paul Public Library will also use federal Community Development Block Grants to restore 3.7 full-time-equivalent library technician positions.

The Parks and Recreation Department had considered cutting organized sports for children ages 9 and up, as well as swimming and water aerobics programs. Those services were partially restored by shifting money from bicycle and pedestrian projects. Those projects will now be funded by the Neighborhood Sales Tax Revitalization program.

According to city budget director Susan Earle and City Council chief budget officer Holly Huston, the 2021 budget will be revisited mid-year, and if city revenue comes in higher than expected, more money can be devoted to parks and recreation and libraries.

The City Council would like to keep recreation centers open until 9 p.m. during the school year instead of closing them at 8 p.m. as currently planned. However, rec center hours and library staffing may depend on the pandemic, which has shuttered city facilities or dramatically reduced their hours since last spring.

Council members do not anticipate fully reopening city facilities for much of 2021, given the ongoing pandemic. Noecker said that while she would like the city to be able to “throw open our doors and welcome people back,” she is worried about the ongoing lag in city sales taxes, hotel and motel taxes, parking revenue, paramedic and other fees and the prospect of delinquencies in property tax payments.

— Jane McClure

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