It was not easy, but the Saint Paul City Council allocated nearly $3.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds on August 25. The money will be used to support a law enforcement career academy, restore city staff positions in several departments, and repair the deteriorating RiverCentre parking ramp.
Council members and Mayor Melvin Carter have tussled for months over the spending of $166 million in pandemic-related relief money. Carter’s administration has brought forward a few proposals at a time, while council members want a more comprehensive approach to using the federal funds.
In July, the council had approved spending $5.1 million in ARPA money on increased public safety measures, criminal court prosecutions, and street and crosswalk striping. According to city finance director John McCarthy, all of the ARPA funds have to be used by the end of 2024.
The council was to vote on the most recent allocations as a package on August 18, but laid over the matter so individual items could be voted on one at a time.
While council members unanimously supported $1.55 million for technology improvements to the council chambers and to bring back jobs in parks and recreation, libraries, and safety and inspections, they raised questions about restoring staff with funds that are not ongoing. Council member Jane Prince called it “kicking the can down the road.”
The council voted to reject the notion of contributing $50,000 to a Ramsey County gift card incentive program for COVID-19 vaccines, noting that other such programs already exist.
It did agree on a 5-2 vote, with Mitra Jalali and Nelsie Yang against, to spend $181,000 in ARPA funds on the law enforcement academy, which was supported in the past by philanthropic efforts. The academy is a career training program for young people interested in law enforcement careers, with a focus on assisting minority candidates.
Jalali, a frequent critic of law enforcement spending, said only eight people from past academy classes have joined the Saint Paul Police Department. Other council members noted that the city did not offer a second police academy for officer candidates last year, as one of many pandemic-related budget cuts. With no academy, officers could not be hired.
The council voted unanimously to allocate $25,000 to start setting up an Office of Neighborhood Safety. The office is seen as providing an alternative approach to how some police calls are now handled. It will be fully funded in the 2022 budget.
The council also gave unanimous approval to earmarking $1.7 million for repairing the deteriorated Saint Paul RiverCentre parking ramp. McCarthy said the repairs are needed so that the ramp can stay open this winter.
Council president Amy Brendmoen, citing the many studies of the parking ramp, questioned an approach she compared to using a staple gun and chicken wire for repairs. She and other council members expressed reluctance to a repair allocation, rather than addressing the long-term problem.
RiverCentre and Department of Planning and Economic Development staff said repairs have been delayed this year. Not being able to use even parts of the parking ramp affects RiverCentre operations because the center gets revenue from parking fees.
— Jane McClure
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