The 2019 city election provides a unique opportunity to raise and discuss serious issues about how the city conducts its business when working within an effective community process. The challenge is regarding transparency and candor.
For too long, the city has relied on blind and obedient endorsements by a single-party city council of questionable and often clearly illegal practices. The city too often relies on a cynical “sue us if you don’t like it” approach to challenges of its actions.
When the stakes are high enough, the parties have sued and too often won substantial judgments against the city. For example:
- Black Bear wrongful contract termination settlement = $800,000
- Numerous police claim settlements
- 2011-2016 Street Right of Way (ROW) Assessment refunds = >$450,000
- 2018 Street Sweeping and Lighting fees = >$50,000 exposure
- Trash Collection fiasco = >$5 million exposure
Meanwhile the city faces a street repair and reconstruction crisis because it has given away at least 10% of its tax base to developers on various Tax Increment Financing (TIF) projects. As a result, most new developments in downtown are subject to existing TIF capture obligations and therefore are not contributing added revenue to the city, county and schools.
Minnesota Courts have overruled the city’s bizarre claims that it can collect as fees its entire $33 million public works budget. That was the ruling of the Supreme Court in First Baptist Church of St. Paul v. City of St. Paul. The district court subsequently denied again the city’s claim to a fee power. These court cases make clear that the city should use regular property taxes to fund its public works budget if it cannot, as it has admitted, show that its projects cause any special benefit (increase in value) to the properties charged. All other Minnesota cities use regular taxes, why not St. Paul?
The city administration should stop playing cynical games with the voters. It is not “holding the line” on real estate taxes if it is charging the same amount (increasing 6% per year) in addition to regular taxes on our tax statements. The check for the total amount paid by the citizens is still an ever increasing total even though we are receiving ever decreasing services.
Prospective city council candidates should be asked:
- Why does the city assess on frontage only, thereby giving high rise properties a huge exemption?
- Why does the city use claimed assessment authority that requires a showing of special benefit when regular taxing authority has no such requirement?
- What legal basis is left for the use of assessment fee authority in the face of Supreme Court and District Court reversals of city claims?
- What defenses do individual city council members have to a claim by taxpayers for attorneys’ fees and damages that plaintiffs are making under the federal Ku Klux Klan Act (42 U.S.C. 1983)?
- Why has the city still not followed up on the Citizens League study of city assessment practices and claims that showed many nonprofits willing to contribute to street repair and construction?
- Why is the county able to repair and replace its streets without resort to special assessments?
- What new sources of revenue (e.g., a wheelage tax) could the city pursue to help fund street repairs?
Therefore, council candidates would do well to focus on the following concepts:
- TIF giveaways are merely transfers of regular tax revenues from basic city and school needs to some preferred party, usually a developer.
Therefore, candidates might be asked:
- Are you in favor of taking tax revenues from basic city services and programs to specially fund some developer proposed uses?
- Do you think that the Ford plant site would never be developed “but for” the requested TIF benefits?
- Why is the city considering a TIF grant of over $115 million to the Ford site and what city services and programs will suffer by such a transfer of that big a tax benefit?
- Do the candidates and incumbents actually understand that any TIF money given to the Ford development is actually a transfer of those funds from existing city programs like libraries, rec centers, or streets?
- In all other cities public works activities re street sweeping and street lighting are usually general operating costs funded by regular taxes.
Therefore, a candidate might be asked:
- Is it fair to exempt high rise buildings above the first floor from the duty to help fund street cleaning and lighting? Assessments based on front footage do that.
- Do tenants, workers or other occupants of high rise buildings not benefit from street sweeping and lighting? Why then, should they not be asked to help fund the services?
- What is wrong with sharing the burden of general city operating costs based upon the total value of real estate, not just the frontage of a building?
- Why do city operating costs seem to rise inexorably each year? Are we devoting too much money to projects and services that are nice but not necessary?
- Trash collection was left to the private market for years. Then the city thought it had a better, government run, idea. That idea has resulted in greater cost to both the city and the property owners and threatens a big and expensive suit by national trash collection firms.
Therefore, a candidate might be asked:
- Why doesn’t the city meet its basic obligation to have safe, clean and well maintained streets before it devotes its resources to buying $4 million worth of trash containers that haulers previously paid for?
- Why did the city embark on a process that reduced the number of trash haulers competing for our business from 15 to 6?
- Did the city not provide in its contract with trash haulers an explicit out if a referendum were called or successful? If not, why not? If so, why not use it?
- Was there any objective proof of excessive street wear from trash collection or was that just a suggested justification for a big and expensive government project?
- Did the city add the $25 administrative fee to each account because of a need to find another revenue stream?
- Why didn’t the city negotiate for the flexibility that property owners had under their former trash contracts to share dumpsters?
- Why is the city doggedly defending its expensive and ill-advised government run process in the face of major public outcry?