St. Paul debates higher taxes for more copsby Marisa Helms, Minnesota Public Radio
The Saint Paul City Council is scheduled to vote Wednesday on how much the city can tax property owners next year.
Some St. Paul neighborhood groups and some city Councilmembers want the city to include money in the budget to hire 40 more police officers next year.
But on the eve of the vote there's little agreement among elected officials on how many more cops the city needs.
St. Paul, Minn. — Though the city's overall crime rate is down eight percent compared to last year, some city residents say nuisance crimes like graffiti, drug houses and prostitution are up in their neighborhoods.
At one of the recent anti-crime rallies in the city, resident Beth McCullough said she's fed up with feeling unsafe. She says she would be willing to pay more in taxes for more police officers.
"Last year, I got three statements, four statements; water assessment, light assessment, sewer assessment," she says. "How about a security assessment? I mean, frankly, you know what? It doesn't do me much good to have water, sewer, and lights, if I'm going to get shot in a drive-by, or if I have to find needles in my front yard."
While McCullough says she's ready to write a check for more cops, it's not clear how many St. Paulites share her enthusiasm.
Mayor Chris Colman has already proposed an 8.6 percent property tax increase. That's about a $50 increase over this year for the owner of a median-valued home. The proposed budget helps plug a nearly $17 million deficit brought on by recent cuts in state aid.
It also includes money for the police department to hire five additional officers.
But Councilmember Dan Bostrom says that's not enough. Bostrom wants to raise the mayor's five new officers to 25. Bostrom's plan would increase city property taxes by just under 10 percent, about a percent and a half more than the mayor would, raising an additional $900,000.
"I feel with what we're proposing gets us moving forward towards the number of police officers that we need on the street," Bostrom says. "This still isn't going to be a sufficient number. But, I don't think that you can do these little band-aid approaches here and there to try and cover up some of this stuff. We have some major issues out there we simply have to deal with." While there's arguably unanimous support among the seven city Councilmembers that the city needs more cops, Bostrom's proposal is hitting some snags.
City Council President Kathy Lantry says Bostrom's plan funds salaries, benefits and equipment for only part of the year. She says that's irresponsible and against current city policy. She says since the city hires a cop for 30 years, not just one year, the city budget must reflect the on-going costs of those hires.
"You don't hire police officers," Lantry says, "knowing right off the bat that the first thing you have done is created a gap ... in 2008, which I think is a critical, critical point in this discussion. We shouldn't set ourselves up for failure in 2008, because the issues we have in 2007 will not go away at all."
Additionally, Lantry sides with the Mayor and city's police department whose own calculations say $900,000 would fund only 10 additional officers, not 20.
Still, Bostrom says he wants an "ironclad" agreement from the mayor that any increase would pay only for hiring 20 additional cops.
Mayor Coleman can't give Bostrom the guarantees he's looking for. Coleman says it may not be the best use of the money to hire more officers to the exclusion of other public safety programs.
"What we've asked the chief to do," Coleman says, "is to say, 'Chief, if you had "X" number of dollars, how would you divide that up?'"
Police Chief John Harrington says he wants as many officers as he can get.
"We'll try and make the best use of whatever cops we get," Harrington says. "Whether it's five extra cops or 20 extra cops or 50 extra cops, whichever number they give us we'll budget it, and work well with it. Frankly, I'd be a little dismayed if we only got five, because I really think the problems are such that they're not getting better."
It's not clear whether the disagreement over how many officers are appropriate will translate into an impasse at the next City Council meeting. There is consensus on one thing--none of the politicians wants the city's levy increase to climb into the double digits.
- All Things Considered, 09/12/2006, 5:23 p.m.