Fixing Saint Paul’s failing infrastructure

This article was written for MinnPost

As winter ends St. Paul residents yet again experienced badly plowed streets and now miles of potholes that need not just patching but complete reconstruction. The City of St. Paul wants permission from the state and its voters to increase the existing sales tax of ½% to cover the costs of road maintenance.

While the city does need additional revenue to perform basic city services such as road maintenance, the sales tax increase is literally patching over a bigger problem for the city – how to increase its tax base.

The roots of the dilapidated streets has many causes.

One, for years road repair was at best only patching. The city stripped off the surface asphalt without reconstructing the base, the latter often is the original and worn-out brick or cobblestone. Such quick fixes are short term cheap, long term expensive.

Two, for years St. Paul has failed to prioritize basic city services in the budgeting and staffing allocation. This is especially true with streets.

But perhaps the most important reason is simple – the City of St. Paul is broke. It just does not have the money to fund road maintenance, at least under the way it currently operates. Thus the request for the increased sales tax. However, the proposed increase will not provide enough new funding to cover even the stated needs, no less sustain many other new and existing ones.

The solution to the city’s street and ultimately financial woes must lie in increasing its tax base. It cannot rely upon the state for more local government aid. Partisan disagreement and outstate legislators who do not feel an obligation to support the cities, especially when they see obvious mismanagement are reasons for this.

Sales tax increases are not an option. They are regressive upon the poor and especially in a city such as St. Paul which is not a major tourist center, they will fall more heavily upon residents who are already overtaxed.

Other user fees are not reliable and individuals can avoid them. For example, according to the Bike Coalition, 5% of the population are regular bike riders. If this amenity is paid from property taxes, 95% of the people who never use a bikeway will have to pay for it. This isn’t fair to most people. Automobile owners pay for license and registration fees, and gas tax. These funds are paid by automobile owners’ for the use, construction and maintenance of roads. Shouldn’t bike users pay fees to cover all the expenses for their particular use of bikeways? Bike riders have been able to shirk their responsibility to pay for an amenity few of us use.

Again, the solution is not raising taxes but expanding the overall tax base.

The root of the problem goes back to when Norm Coleman was mayor. He convinced the city to use tax increment financing (TIF) to fund development and St. Paul continues to rely on it to this day.

TIF operates by giving developers property and other tax breaks to developers for many years. In theory, the development is tax exempt but in practice is supposed to be captured by St. Paul in order to finance the tax break. It is sort of like supply-side economics for developers with the false belief that if we cut taxes for them everyone benefits.

The problem with TIF is that property taxes – which pay for city, school, and county services – are twofold. One, it takes away revenue to pay for the services for St. Paul, its schools, and the county. Two, overused as in St. Paul, it exempts more and more property from taxes, thereby failing to achieve its objective of promoting economic growth and an expansion of the tax base. St. Paul’s tax base, already challenged by the number of tax-exempted government and non-profit properties in the city, exacerbates its problem by giving developers TIF handouts that they do not need.

Since 1995, St. Paul has increasingly granted TIF to developers as an incentive to build in its city. This has been so abused to the point that without TIF expenses (debt service and reduced property valuations) St. Paul could more than cover all the needs of road repair and the Parks Department. The business community has always welcomed this subsidy, as well as most elected officials who see a benefit from new development, often before elections.

St. Paul has numbers approaching 60 TIF districts (not only just individual buildings). The legal requirement is that a TIF grant can be awarded to any development that will solve a situation of blight, and that the project would not proceed “but for” TIF. This has totally been ignored in St. Paul. Developers, when asked if they would develop without TIF, the answer of course has always been “No.” Property taxes for all these developments, for at least 25 year terms are granted back to developers. This results in a shifting of property taxes to other businesses and homeowners.

It doesn’t end there. Any developer interested in St. Paul, must compete with a myriad of competition from other TIF subsidized properties. Too often TIF is the easy answer. The theory is TIF will attract additional development that will provide new taxes. But new development in these districts also qualify for TIF and again do not increase any tax base. We have used up our most attractive commercial real estate for development that doesn’t generate taxes. Instead, it increases our tax burden these developments require for services.

Incentive to build new commercial projects in St. Paul, where there isn’t adequate demand, depletes overall commercial occupancy in the city. Rental rates are forced down. Property valuation on commercial property is determined from net operating income. When this is reduced, so is our tax base. This is the opposite result of what we were told TIF would do.

Now, the national impact of a 39% average commercial vacancy in downtowns after the pandemic will impact our tax base even more. The taxpayers will have to cover much of the debt service for those projects with general obligation bonds and without assessment agreements that guarantee shortfalls in required tax receipts to pay TIF debt.

So, in order to recover, we first need to stop the financial bleeding. This TIF addiction continues today. A sales tax increase does not solve the problem. A new strategy to expand the tax base is really what St. Paul needs to do.

 John Mannillo is a commercial developer and Chair of St. Paul STRONG. David Schultz is a Hamline University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and a former housing and economic planner and director of planning and code enforcement.

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