The Minneapolis City Council budget committee reduced the size of the recommended tax levy and found funds to avoid layoffs in the police and fire departments at a meeting Thursday night.
The actions are significant additions to the mayor's proposed 2010 budget, but city officials worry the job savings may be just temporary because more state aid cuts may come soon as the governor ponders how to fix another massive budget gap.
Members of the council's budget committee briefly applauded at the end of nearly two days worth of amending and debating sections of the mayor's $1.3 billion budget. Part of the applause was for the committee's chair, Paul Ostrow, who completed his final mark up session. Ostrow chose not to run for reelection this fall.
"The biggest achievement of this budget is that we were able to avoid public safety layoffs," he said.
Both the police and fire departments were prepared to lay off dozens of employees. Council members employed some creative accounting to save 27 fire fighter jobs and nearly all 21 members of the police department's civilian crime prevention staff.
Council members found ways to use federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to save some of the crime prevention specialist jobs that were on the chopping block. Ostrow said he's been trying to find ways to use federal funds to pay for police and fire expenses for a while.
"And I personally think the conversation, even though it's taking us way into the evening, on reprogramming our CDBG is was overdue and I think it's a positive thing that we're doing," Ostrow said.
Council members also reallocated hundreds of thousands of dollars from the 311 and 911 call centers, civil rights department and the Minneapolis Advantage loan program to the police and fire departments. Council members also agreed to transfer $3 million to police and $2 million to fire from the city's contingency fund. The move is meant to help the departments buy time as they find other funding sources to pay for personnel.
Civil Rights department cut
The amended budget does not include the controversial street light fee, but it does include a provision from council member Betsy Hodges that is similar to the mayor's proposal to eliminate part of the Civil Rights department.
Hodges amendment would not strip all of the civil rights investigations from the city, instead the unit would drop to two people who would focus on a backlog of cases. Hodges said a state investigator would handle all new civil rights cases in the city.
"This is not about finding cost savings for other places in the city," Hodges said. "This is about getting better results for the Civil Rights department."
The proposal drew criticism from several council members, including Robert Lilligren. Lilligren opposed the mayor's civil rights plan to eliminate the complaints division and move it to the state. He said the Hodges amendment is too similar to that plan.
"I agree that we need to examine - reexamine - if possible redesign the way that it works, possible revamp the entire department. But I don't think, by taking the resources away, by shifting the investigative function to the state we are achieving that goal," he said.
Lilligren is not a member of a committee so he couldn't vote against the amendment, but he will get a chance to vote next Monday when the full council takes up the amended budget.
Possible cut in state aid may mean more city budget cuts
However, next week may not be the last time council members address the 2010 budget. A recent state budget forecast has uncovered a $1.2 billion gap. Last year, the state budget shortfall meant city officials had to revise the budget to account for a $13 million dollar cut in state aid.
Despite the possibility of further cuts, council members see a bright silver lining to this cloud. Last month a Hennepin County judge ruled that two closed pension funds for public safety employees should reduce their claims against the city. The millions of dollars in savings is being passed on to taxpayers in the form of a nearly four percent property tax decrease.