In St. Paul, taxes rise and rise and rise. Can we talk more about this?

This article was first published in the Pioneer Press on December 1, 2019. The published version of this article and reader comments are available on the Pioneer Press’s website. View on (Pioneer Press)

Late last month, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter proposed a supplemental budget in addition to the one he proposed in August, and the City Council must finalize the tax levy before Dec. 31.

Do the mayor and City Council view the maximum levy of 22% as extra cash with which to pay for additional projects or will they return the levy to a more reasonable level due to the trash referendum vote? The mayor’s supplement budget added $1.5 million to the 2020 budget aimed at stemming the tide of gun violence in the city, raising his proposed levy increase to 5.85%. But even then, his proposal included a $150,000 pedestrian safety engineering consultant. While laudable and arguably important, what has that to do with fighting root causes of violence in our city?

And what does the City Council have up its sleeve to make use of the excess levy “cushion”?

Mayor Carter’s initial proposed budget includes an increase of 4.85%. That follows increases of 10.5% in 2019, 23.9% in 2018, and 8.6% in 2017.

When Carter made his budget proposal, there was uncertainty regarding the upcoming vote on the organized trash referendum. Therefore, on Sept. 25, the City Council set a maximum 22% tax levy increase to allow for the possibility that funding for the organized trash payment system would have to be changed. On Nov. 5, residents voted to keep the organized trash collection system in place, negating the need for the extra 22% levy increase.

Certainly, St. Paul has many challenges: persistent potholes; crumbling infrastructure; deficits in park maintenance and the loss of thousands of trees; local business closures and storefront vacancies; homicides at record-setting levels; and the lack of affordable housing. These combined with our unacceptable ranking by the Wall Street Journal as one of the worst states for African Americans and among the highest percentage of people of color in poverty of the 25 largest cities in the country.

None of this is new information, however. Good leadership and transparent, accountable governance mean the 2020 levy discussion should return and remain at the proposed increase of 4.85%. Any supplemental items should be factored within that 4.85% and should be justified and necessary.

There is good reason to be concerned about transparency and accountability. On Nov. 13, the City Council voted a pitiful decrease of $1 per month for trash rates in 2020. This meager savings will be offset by approximately $320,000 the city owes to cover the haulers’ legal fees and the trash consortium’s paid representative. Essentially, the organized trash contract and resulting legal process mean that the citizens paid to negotiate against themselves and fight themselves in court.

The mayor’s office didn’t release 57 pages of letters and emails between the trash consortium and city officials until the day after the election, at which time the item was on the City Council meeting agenda, along with a staggering $2.5 million proposed increase in trash fees from the haulers. Withholding that much additional information for an agenda item until the day after the referendum is terrible leadership and was clearly done for political reasons.

That correspondence shows, contrary to the assertion of many within and outside city leadership, that the city was not actively renegotiating the contract in the months before the election. The chief manager of the haulers consortium told the city on Sept. 9 that there would be no renegotiating of sharing, opt-outs or rate adjustments. The vote to repeal failed, based in part on this false narrative of ongoing renegotiation and claims that voting “no” on the referendum was somehow a vote against communities of color and low-income households, the additional funds as part of the 22% levy are no longer needed.

The mayor and City Council would be wise to pay attention to the demographics of the referendum vote. The “no” votes came overwhelmingly from the city’s lowest income areas, the same areas struggling to meet basic needs. The impact of higher taxes on these neighborhoods could very well be destructive to the goals of both affordable housing and successful communities. Surely we all want better than that.

The City’s levy is just part of the overall tax burden for citizens and businesses. Ramsey County and the school district have also announced similar increases. And whether one lives in Dayton’s Bluff, Frogtown or Highland Park, these types of tax increases year after year are unsustainable.

In the end, organized trash is here to stay, for at least four more years in its present form. It was an issue that arguably increased voter turnout but also divided wards, neighborhoods, and the citizenry. As the city continues to heal, city leaders must be transparent and accountable. Increasing the levy at all, or to a maximum increase of 4.85% as presented in early August, still requires thoughtfulness and justification. Doing so would demonstrate good, responsible leadership and go a long way toward building bridges following the very divisive referendum conundrum.

Andy Rorvig, an attorney in St. Paul, Yusef Mgeni, a civic volunteer in St. Paul, and Jack Hoeschler, an attorney in St. Paul, are members of the Saint Paul STRONG steering committee.