By Rebecca Noecker, City Councilmember, Ward 2
Every day, I receive dozens of constituent emails and phone calls on topics ranging from potholes to policing. These messages give me creative ideas for new policies, challenge my thinking about how we’re doing things now, and prompt me to learn more about how city departments work so I can better serve my constituents.
But on one subject, I don’t hear nearly as much as I’d like to.
That subject is our annual budget, which is proposed by the mayor each August, discussed by the council throughout the fall, and finalized by a council vote in early December.
I understand why people choose not to engage in this process. The city budget is complicated and intimidating. It’s hard to grasp a $627 million budget divided into a $319.5 million general fund, $250 million in special funds and a $58 million debt fund. And you’re unlikely to take the time to send a letter or make a phone call if you don’t feel informed.
At the same time, setting our budget is arguably the most important work we do all year and now is the time when we most need your input. Everything we want for our communities—more out-of-school time activities for young people, better maintenance of our parks and roads, new approaches to public safety, affordable housing—requires money. If you want to see changes in the city in the year ahead, sharing your input during the budget-setting process is critical.
That’s especially true this year. Additional spending and decreased revenues due to COVID-19 have contributed to a $19 million gap in St. Paul’s 2021 budget. Recognizing that families and businesses throughout our city are struggling more now than ever, we have committed to a 0 percent levy increase, meaning the city will bring in no more dollars in 2021 than we did this year. (Your individual property taxes will increase or decrease depending on your property’s value and how it’s changed relative to other properties in the city).
The mayor has proposed to fill the budget gap by leaving vacancies open in all City departments, rather than hiring new staff to fill those positions, and by reducing department budgets. This will mean cuts to recreation center and library hours and programs, and fewer police officers, building inspectors and traffic engineers. These are not easy choices, which is why your thoughtful feedback is important now more than ever.
There are a number of ways to get up to speed on the budget, even for those like me who struggled in math class. On the city’s budget webpage at stpaul.gov/budget, you can see full details of the 2021 budget proposal, as well as budgets for each year going back to 2014. You can also watch the city council budget meetings online on Wednesday mornings from 10 am – 11:30 am (stpaul.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx).
You don’t need to be a financial whiz to give budget feedback. It’s often said that a budget is a moral document, reflecting our values as a community as much as dollars and cents. We need to hear what you care about, what programs or services are most important to you, and what role you think government should play in our society. Those thoughts are more valuable than a line-by-line fiscal analysis.
It’s also important to share what you value less. Like all budgets, ours involves trade-offs. In a year like this, when we’re bringing in no new dollars, spending more on this requires spending less on that or finding efficiencies so we can do more with less. Let us know what you think should be deprioritized, what work we can share with other government bodies or non-profit partners, and where you think we could be more efficient.
Finally, share your thoughts early. While we won’t take a final vote on the budget until December 9, my colleagues and I are developing our positions on the budget now. If we want to make big changes, it takes time to look for alternative funding sources and make sure we have the support of a majority of our colleagues.
I hope you’ll feel encouraged to get involved in the budget process this year. This will be an extraordinarily tough budget no matter what, but it will be better if we build it together.