St. Paul mayor calls for slightly higher taxes, more money for roads

Mayor Chris Coleman
Mayor of St. Paul Chris Coleman spoke to the crowd at the grand opening of a Lunds grocery store in downtown St. Paul on Thursday, May 15, 2014.
Caroline Yang / For MPR News, file

Mayor Chris Coleman is proposing a modest increase in the city's tax levy and a major change in road repair policy.

In his 2015 budget address on Wednesday, Coleman proposed boosting funding to rebuild the city's main thoroughfares, while sharply reducing spending on the city's smaller residential streets. The move follows an outcry from residents and the city council over the condition of the city's major thoroughfares.

To help meet city expenses, Coleman proposes a 2.4 percent increase to the city's property tax levy to bring in an additional $2.5 million.

Coleman and the City Council have received plenty of criticism about the city's response to potholes this year. The winter was long and cold, and the spring was long and wet. But Coleman said the root of the problem isn't the weather. It's the cruel passage of time.

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"The simple fact is that what we saw this last year — here and across the state of Minnesota — was the result of deteriorating conditions of our streets, many of which are more than fifty years old," he said.

When streets get that old, simply repaving them doesn't work. They need to be dug up and completely rebuilt.

For decades St. Paul has been doing that with its smaller residential streets, but it hasn't had a similar program for the main thoroughfares. Instead the city relied on state funding that fell short of the need.

Coleman's proposed budget would change that policy. It cuts $8 million from the residential street budget — almost two-thirds of the current funding. At the same time, he wants to pour $10 million into the arterial streets. That's more than triple what they get now.

The shift needs to happen, said Coleman, who acknowledges there are downsides.

"People value their residential streets. Obviously it impacts their property values, and the quality of their life in their neighborhoods, and so it's an important part of the program," the mayor said. "But you can't go for as long as we've gone without the massive infusion of resources to rebuild our arterials."

The shift will mean delaying construction projects scheduled in the coming years for many residential streets, including potentially the one where City Council Member Chris Tolbert lives. But Tolbert said he's willing to make that tradeoff.

"I use a street like Hamline — as do all the people on the residential streets — more often than I use my residential street, probably," Tolbert said. "So I think prioritizing those is the most important part."

Data from the U.S. department of transportation show Tolbert's road use is typical. Local residential streets receive just 13 percent of U.S. traffic. More than half of the vehicle travel in the country happens on larger arterial and so-called collector streets.

In addition to the shift from residential funding, Coleman wants to borrow $30 million to jump start other street and bike lane projects, and he pledged $3 million to help Ramsey County rebuild some of its roads in St. Paul.

Coleman's plan received good reviews from several City Council members, who had previously criticized his approach to the road problems.

In addition to the roads plan, Coleman also proposed giving city workers paid parental leave benefits, which would cost $200,000. He also wants to hire three additional fire code inspectors to deal with a growing backlog. The city has a total of 9,000 rental properties overdue for inspection.

The backlog started when the city mandated the inspection of smaller rental properties, said Ricardo Cervantes, director of the city's Department of Safety and Inspections.

"In 2007, the city passed an ordinance to begin looking at single-family and duplex properties," Cervantes said. "The mayor said it here, that although that was a laudable effort, it didn't have enough staff. So we're moving in that direction now."

To help pay for the inspectors, Coleman proposed increasing fees charged to property owners.

The budget proposal also includes spending cuts. While the number of police officers will stay the same, the department will lose civilian staff in its records unit and at its impound lot. Coleman said each city department was asked to find ways to save money.

"This I remind you is on the heels of eight straight years of difficult budgeting," Coleman said. "There is simply little-to-no fat left on the bones of our budget. Further cuts could result in significant and unacceptable diminishment of critical services."