The state's two largest cities approved their 2012 budgets Wednesday evening. Minneapolis passed a budget that held the property tax levy flat, while St. Paul voted to raise its levy by nearly 5 percent.
The vote on the St. Paul budget came after arduous negotiations between Mayor Chris Coleman and the seven-person City Council. One flash point was how to deploy resources within the city's fire department during lean times.
In a time of shrinking payments from the state in the form of Local Government Aid, St. Paul City Council members said they had to raise taxes to maintain quality services.
St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry acknowledges that some taxpayers will be hurt more than others, depending on how well their homes held their value.
"There are a high number of people in the city who are really, really going to get slammed," Lantry said.
On the bright side, the nearly 5 percent levy increase is less than what Coleman proposed back in August. Using figures available at the time, the mayor recommended raising the levy by 6.5 percent. But city budgeting officials then found more than $2 million in excess cash from a variety of sources, and in an unusual move, Coleman on Monday announced he wanted to scale back his proposed increase to 5.5 percent.
Coleman also sent two letters to the council reaffirming his fire chief's decision to decommission a rescue squad at one of the stations. The mayor said redeploying those five firefighters would help boost service across the city.
But the council wanted to keep the squad, as well as a police motorcycle unit that was also on the chopping block. Lantry said the mayor's letters sent a signal that he wasn't going to budge on few pinch points.
"It was out of character," Lantry said. "I acknowledge the authority the mayor has, and I hope he acknowledges the authority the council has, and has enough respect for us that he takes the very deliberate decisions we made here today as he decides what to do with the budget we've given back to him."
Nearly 100 firefighters in gold T-shirts packed the chamber as the council passed a budget that restores funding for the rescue squad. But the squad's fate remains uncertain. While the council writes the checks, under a strong-mayor system, Coleman said his department heads have the power to decide how to spend the money.
"The fire chief has to make decisions that he feels are in the best interest of public safety — the safety of our residents and the safety of our firefighters," Coleman said. "We'll ask him to look at that and make some decisions."
Coleman said he will also thoroughly review the council's budget. His concern is that one-time money might be paying for ongoing costs.
St. Paul's budget cuts will be felt. About six people are expected to lose their jobs, and some libraries will reduce their hours.