New St. Paul mayor faces big budget deficitby Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman used his first State of the City address to sound a fiscal warning bell. Speaking Wednesday to city council members and other leaders, Coleman said the the city is facing a $20 million budget shortfall.
St. Paul, Minn. — Coleman set the tone for his first address to the city by giving it in council chambers, with council members seated on either side of him.
"Though St. Paul has a strong mayor system," Coleman said, "we are stronger as a city when the mayor realizes the important role that the council plays. We are stronger when we work together."
Coleman's predecessor, Randy Kelly, had a famously combative relationship with the council. Coleman's gesture symbolizes what he hopes will be a cooperative relationship. And he'll need the support as he puts together his first budget in a few months.
Coleman revealed the city has a projected $20 million deficit. He says the shortfall is the result of several factors. The city is expected to lose $3.2 million in state aid, and the mayor says overall, total state and federal aid is down more than 18 percent.
Coleman says finding a solution to the shortfall through old methods won't work anymore. Coleman laid out a stark scenario if the city doesn't think creatively about the deficit.
"If we were to solve a $20 million challenge entirely through cuts, it would require the elimination of over 150 public safety personnel," Coleman said. "On the other hand, if we were to tackle this issue entirely with tax increases, we would have to raise the levy by over 30 percent. Neither option is acceptable."
Coleman says the city will explore creative ways to make the city financially sound, not just next year, but in the long term. To that end, he announced the creation of a blue ribbon panel of business leaders to come up with a long-term budget plan with city finance officials.
The mayor says the panel will include Ecolab CEO Doug Baker, Securian CEO Bob Senkler, and Pam Wheelock, chief financial officer of the Minnesota Wild, and former state finance commissioner under Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Coleman also spoke about his top priority as mayor -- bringing light rail to University Ave. Coleman says he's created a project task force which will produce a comprehensive plan for developing the University Ave. central corridor over the next two decades.
"St. Paul will have light rail in the Central Corridor," Coleman said. "We will be a part of a first-class transit system in the very near future."
Ramsey County is asking the state Legislature this session for $50 million for final design and construction of the light rail corridor. Coleman says getting the money this year is critical in order to receive over $400 million in federal matching funds.
City council members responded positively to Coleman's speech.
Council member Lee Helgen says he liked much of what he heard, though he recognizes the work ahead -- particularly on the budget shortfall -- will be challenging.
"Obviously the reality is when we sit down and try to get the work done," Helgen said. "And, we need to see results. And I think there's a high level of expectation on the mayor. I'm willing to do my part, and it really feels like the rest of my colleagues are willing to dig in and work together."
Council President Kathy Lantry agrees. She says she's pleased to see Coleman has an understanding of the city's financial troubles and that he's committed to long-term solutions.
"I think it's really hard to talk about what does the city want to be, if we're constantly worried about how we are going to pay the bills," Lantry said.
In his address, Coleman also touched on some accomplishments of his two months in office. He says his after-school initiative is off the ground with a recent summit and task force. He also spoke of his ongoing commitment to making St. Paul an environmentally friendly city by reducing greenhouse gases and balancing business and environmental goals.
Coleman also announced a new partnership to create a one-stop service center for victims of domestic violence.
- Morning Edition, 03/09/2006, 7:20 a.m.