Carter’s budget includes tax levy increase of 6.9% to help pay for initiatives.
Restoring critical services interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, meeting housing needs, creating an Office of Neighborhood Safety and allocating federal American Rescue Plan funds are four highlights of Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s proposed 2022 city budget.
At $713 million, the proposed budget is 12.6 percent higher than the $633 million city budget in 2021 and 10.2 percent higher than the $647 million city budget in 2020.
The increased spending comes with a 6.9 percent increase in the city’s property tax levy. The proposed levy for 2022 is $176.6 million, an increase of $11.4 million from 2021. According to city budget staff, the levy increase would increase the annual property tax bill on a median-valued home in Saint Paul by about $127.
Carter, who is running for a second term this fall, delivered his 2022 budget address virtually due to the pandemic. He reminded those who were watching that the city held its property tax levy flat in 2021, slashing spending, delaying equipment purchases, eliminating travel and leaving jobs open. Carter described it as a “defensive budget” in light of the unknowns about the pandemic. The city held off on using budget reserves. Positions were cut by attrition rather than layoffs.
“We’re not out of the dark,” Carter said. “This pandemic is far from over.”
In a discussion with reporters after the budget address, Carter described his 2022 spending plan as paradoxical. Federal funding will greatly help, but those are one-time dollars and cannot be used for permanent programs without putting pressure on future city budgets. At the same time, the city cannot keep its levy flat for two years in a row, according to Carter. That would create bigger funding gaps and more budget pressures in the future, he said.
The mayor acknowledged that the levy increase will create hardships for homeowners who are struggling financially. To help, Carter has proposed a $600,000 investment in the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to support low-income homeowners.
The city has received $166 million through the federal American Recovery Act to help it recover from the pandemic. To date, it has only allocated a small portion of that. City Council members have called for a more collaborative process in allocating the funds and have advocated spending some of it on the city’s backlog of street maintenance work. Carter has proposed divvying up the federal funds six ways, none of which would focus on capital improvements.
In his budget, Carter earmarked $40 million for neighborhood safety initiatives in 2022 in accord with the city’s Community First Public Safety initiative. Another $40 million would be used to address housing needs and assist people who are homeless or at risk of becoming so. Jobs and career readiness programs would receive $40 million.
Carter’s budget would create a new city Office of Neighborhood Safety, as was recommended this spring by a citizens’ advisory committee. Another budget highlight is a permanent source for funding the city’s Law Enforcement Career Pathways Academy for new police officers.
The mayor said that while the city must pursue alternatives to traditional policing, such as mental health responders and citizen ambassadors, there are circumstances “where there is simply no substitute for a police officer.”
The Saint Paul Police Department’s authorized strength is 620 officers for 2021. As of last week, there were 569 officers in the department.
Carter’s budget would add 115 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions to the city’s work force, increasing it to 3,097 FTE positions. The city cut 91 FTE positions during the pandemic. More than two dozen of the proposed positions are short-term jobs supported through federal funding.
Detailed departmental budgets were not available last week, but they will be scrutinized by the City Council in the weeks ahead. The City Council will begin its budget review on August 18. The city must set its maximum property tax levy for 2022 by September 15. It can cut the levy after that date, but it cannot increase it.
— Jane McClure
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