Council members assail Sayles Belton’s budget

Sarah McKenzie

Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton proposed a hefty spending increase for city parks and recommended boosting the collection of property taxes by more than $10 million during her 2001 budget address last week.
The mayor said rising property values are spurring higher property taxes for many city homeowners, but maintained she is still honoring a commitment to keep tax rates low.
According to her proposal released Thursday, the city’s tax rate will decrease by 1.2 percent under her plan, despite an increase in collections.
Residents with homes worth $81,000 will see a $38 yearly property tax increase in 2001 under the proposal, and those with $300,000 homes will be taxed an additional $146.
Supporters on the City Council argue the mayor’s $1 billion city budget is responsible and places a high priority on city departments that serve families and children. But critics argue the proposal fails to shore up an increasing gap between the amount the city spends and revenue collected.
During Thursday’s address, Sayles Belton lauded her initiatives to spur downtown economic growth, improve public safety and revitalize neighborhoods, pointing to reports that give the city high marks for city management.
“The report card is in and Minneapolis is a straight-A city. The budget I present today keeps us on track for continued strong fiscal management,” Sayles Belton said.
But some council members argue the proposal doesn’t challenge the city’s fiscal problems directly and aggressively.
Council member Barret Lane, a trial attorney who represents Ward 13, covering portions of southwest Minneapolis, said the proposal appears to maintain the status quo.
He said the mayor is backing off of commitments to close a funding gap for city infrastructure, citing a 1997 report that recommended the city spend an additional $74 million annually on road and bridge maintenance.
The mayor proposes spending $800,000 for street and bridge repairs, $1 million on a paving and transportation capital program and $900,000 on water infrastructure. All told, the mayor commits $4.4 million to close the infrastructure funding gap.
Lane, who argues City Hall leaders should resign their posts if they fail to address the budget problems, also had critical words for the mayor’s ability to project the costs of her spending plans.
“(The proposal) doesn’t make a serious attempt to solve the long-term budget problems. No one is looking beyond next year,” Lane said.
According to his calculations, the city will be short $300 million for projects in 10 years if the current revenue levels remain consistent.
Council member Paul Ostrow, who represents Ward 1, encompassing parts of northeast Minneapolis, echoed Lane’s concerns for the city’s financial sustainability.
“There are serious long-term financial issues not being addressed,” Ostrow said. “We need to have a sense of urgency about what needs to be done.”
He added that the mayor’s proposed $2.6 million budget for the city’s parks is not affordable considering the looming budget problems facing the city.
The mayor advocates spending $1.1 million to keep parks open seven days a week and $1.5 million for capital improvements. The amount is 17 percent higher than current funding levels.
Some council members criticized the mayor’s agreement with the Park Board to increase spending instead of asking voters to approve a referendum boosting park funds.
But council member Brian Herron, who represents residents in south and southwest Minneapolis in Ward 8, defended the mayor’s proposed spending increase on city parks.
“If we are true to our commitments to family and children, then we need to put our money where our mouth is,” Herron said.
He added that the mayor’s plan allows the city to pay park staff decent salaries and recruit top-notch staff for city programs.
Herron said the proposal is fiscally responsible with a reasonable attempt to keep city taxes at a low level. He said the council has to strike a balance between fulfilling spending commitments and keeping taxes at a rate that doesn’t squeeze residents out of their neighborhoods.
The mayor’s plan does include several cost-saving measures.
Sayles Belton recommends cutting spending levels for all city departments except Public Works. The police department budget will be cut by $1 million, and the fire department will lose one station, saving the city $750,000 next year.
The Police Department found ways on its own to cut costs and improve efficiency, Sayles Belton said.
“As we move in this positive direction, we can now redirect our efforts on more effective intervention, innovative prevention and focused enforcement,” the mayor said.
Other important aspects of the 2001 budget proposal include a $10 million pledge for information technology investments, funding for a St. Anthony Falls interpretive center, mechanical upgrades to City Hall and money for the Humboldt Avenue North greenway.
The plan also commits $600,000 for city cleanup efforts, $1.5 million for a three-year city marketing plan and an additional $11 million to fund affordable housing projects. With the extra funding, the city will spend $40 million on affordable housing.
This week, city department officials will meet with council members to discuss next year’s budget. Council members are expected to vote on the budget Dec. 14.

Sarah McKenzie welcomes comments at [email protected]