Voter's Guide: Highlights of mayoral candidates' budget priorities

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October 16, 2013
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

One of the key jobs of the Minneapolis mayor is to craft a city budget and then work with members of the City Council who ultimately have the final vote on it.

For the first time in his 12 years as mayor, R.T. Rybak has delivered a budget to the Council that calls for a 1 percent property tax decrease in 2014. The city’s proposed budget for 2014 is roughly $1.2 billion. 

Here is a look at the budget priorities of the leading mayoral candidates.

If elected, what would be your top priorities for the 2015 city budget? 

Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew said his budget priorities would reflect his top three priorities: making sure every child in the city has access to a quality education; creating an environment where business and workers thrive; and investing in basic city services to improve public safety, fix streets, plow roads properly and preserve parks and natural spaces. 

“I also want to make Minneapolis the greenest city in North America, not only because it is good for the environment, but it is a proven strategy to create jobs and drive economic development throughout the city,” he said. 

Former City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes said the budget “reflects the city’s priorities.” 

“As I talk with voters, I hear them say they want their streets cleaned, snow removed and potholes fixed and public safety addressed. I hear these same concerns throughout the city,” she said. “These will be my priorities in creating the city’s budget. The city’s budget should not reflect the vanity projects of a politician; it should reflect the needs of the citizens.”

Planning Commissioner Dan Cohen said the first and primary obligation of the city is public safety.

“We should at least have as many firefighters as St. Paul, so that means 34 more firefighters. As for police, attrition will take us below our present numbers, we need to fill that gap and bring us up to full strength,” he said. “After that comes property tax relief, and economic growth.”

Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine has a goal of reducing the property tax burden on the city’s homeowners by 5 percent. 

“As mayor, my priority will be to closely examine each city department as well as other expenditures to determine our priorities and how to implement changes to operate the government more efficiently and effectively,” he said. 

City Council Member Betsy Hodges said if elected, she’d work to craft a 2015 budget that is “structurally balanced,” takes care of basic city services, and reflects the city’s top priorities. 

“Those priorities are eliminating the gaps in education and jobs between white people and people of color, between haves and have-nots; and keeping Minneapolis moving forward as a livable, densely populated, great city,” she said. “As Chair of the Ways and Means/Budget Committee, I’ve partnered with Mayor Rybak to create a progressive, inclusive, livable city that works for you and attracts people and investment while keeping an eye on our bottom line.”

She said she would press ahead to tackle the city’s greatest challenge — racial disparities in education and jobs.  

Council Member Don Samuels (5th Ward) said his top budget priorities would focus on things that help the city’s residents and businesses thrive. He would increase the city’s investment in the city’s STEP-UP summer jobs program for at-risk youth, infrastructure preservation and maintenance and in the police department by adding new officers.

Samuels would also invest in reforms in the city’s regulatory process with a new program called Project Green Light and create a City of Lakes Investment Fund (CLIF) to encourage new business to grow in Minneapolis. 

Wind power attorney Cam Winton -said his budget priorities would include funding for more road paving — about $20 million a year that would allow the city to repave approximately 100 miles of road a year. He would also find funding to put GPS units on all road-paving and snow-plow trucks to provide real-time information on service delivery.

Winton also advocates merging the back offices of City Hall and Hennepin County to streamline services and eliminate duplication.

Winton said he would fully staff the police and fire departments, which would translate to 40 more firefighters and 125 additional police officers. 

He would also fully fund the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to the level of $10 million a year. 

Business executive Stephanie Woodruff said her top priority would be to “bring more transparency to the city’s budgeting and spending process.” 

“As the appointed Vice Chair of the Audit Committee for the City of Minneapolis by Mayor R.T. Rybak, I have witnessed the lack of transparency in our city government spending first hand,” she said.

Woodruff calls for check-book level spending reports on the city’s website. “Doing so will increase citizenship and bring a higher level of transparency and accountability to our elected and appointed officials. Transparency breeds trust, and trust is the foundation of great teamwork,” she said.

She would also focus resources on fighting the achievement gap in the city’s schools through increasing funding for early childhood programs, creating new mentorship programs and expanding after school programs.  

How would you hold the line on property tax increases?

Andrew said “raising property taxes is not an option” and “failing to restore quality to basic services is also not an option.”

He said Rybak is leaving the city on good financial footing and if elected, he would further that work in three key ways.

First, he’d continue working with legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton to bring state resources, including Local Government Aid (LGA) to the city.

Second, he would promote tax base growth. “We have to continue to increase our population to spread the cost of our services amongst more taxpayers,” he said. “We know the formula for how to do this, and I have the vision and leadership to bring this to scale. When we create transit, invest in green spaces and the arts and provide opportunities for economic development, people move here.” 

Third, he would rely on innovation to overcome the city’s financial challenges, and will increase intergovernmental collaboration to save money, eliminate duplication and improve quality. 

Cherryhomes said the city’s property taxes shouldn’t deter seniors and young families from living in the city. She said she would work with city employees if elected to find efficiencies and work to grow the tax base. 

“I believe property taxes are regressive and disproportionately affect those who are least able to pay, like our seniors who bought homes at a modest price and have seen their asset and corresponding taxes increase over the years,” she said. “We must insure that taxes are not a deterrent to young families purchasing their first home or to seniors being able to stay in their home.”

To keep property taxes under control, Cohen said we would put an end to “foolish and unnecessary expenditures like $500 million laid on the backs of taxpayers for a stadium we never got a vote on for a ‘civil racketeer,’ and $200 million for an expensive toy-like streetcars,” he said.

On the revenue side, Cohen would advocate a jobs program. 

“For starters,  I propose a downtown casino, which will not only generate hundreds of jobs, but will also be a tax paying engine: property taxes, corporate income taxes, personal income taxes, licensing taxes, operating taxes,” he said.    

Fine said he would work to streamline government operations with the goal of reducing property taxes by 5 percent in 2015.

“During my time on the Board of Estimate and Taxation, I’ve witnessed inefficient spending and I believe the government can run more effectively without compromising critical services, such as police and fire,” he said.  “We must make Minneapolis an affordable place to live and from my 16 years on the Park Board, I know how to deliver effective government services without excessive taxation. I have done it for the parks, and I can do it for the whole city.” 

Hodges said she would continue her work to take care of the city’s bottom line. 

“As a result of that work, in partnership with Mayor R.T. Rybak, I voted this year for a 1 percent decrease in the property tax levy. I fought hard for pension reform, which saved us $20 million in 2012 alone. I have fought for years for a strong fiscal relationship with the state and am proud of this year’s increase in Local Government Aid,” she said. 

Hodges proposed the creation of the Property Tax Stabilization Fund, which had $7 million in it this year and contributed toward decreasing the levy. 

She also pointed to her opposition of using public dollars for the Viking stadium and her plan to grow the city’s population as evidence of her commitment to protecting taxpayers. 

“We are building the city people want to live in and want to work in, and we are going to keep building it even better,” she said. “Particularly with the addition of densely populated rail transit corridors throughout Minneapolis, our tax base will grow quickly but sustainably, relieving the tax burden on all Minneapolis residents.”

Samuels said there are two main areas to focus on to hold the line on property taxes. 

“First, we must redesign government. Let me give you an example: Each year, there are roughly 28,000 dispatches of a firetruck to respond to an emergency call. In each of these cases, the fire truck is dispatched, costing city residents about $500 per dispatch. Of those 28,000 cases, only about 6,000 cases are actual fires requiring the technology of a fire truck; the vast majority of the cases are emergency medical service (EMS) assistance calls, which require medical technology,” he said. “If we deployed a smaller residential truck in the EMS cases, which cost roughly $250 per dispatch, instead of deploying a full fire truck, we would save the city roughly $7 million dollars every year just by changing how we deliver fire service.”

As chair of the City Council’s public safety department, Samuels has partnered with Mayor R.T. Rybak to set the foundation to the implement the reform. 

Samuels said he would also avoid bad investment decisions if elected. He would not use tax increment financing (TIF) to finance projects. 

Winton would “apply common sense” to improve the structure of city government and spend less money to reduce the burden on property taxpayers.

He advocates streamlining duplicative functions of the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County. 

He also opposes trimming expenses on many projects advocated by Rybak and other candidates he’s running against. 

“When I’m mayor, we won’t buy a $53-million-per-mile streetcar line, marketing campaign to persuade city residents to drink tap water, or temporary glowing mood ring at the Convention Center,” he said. “Just like the U, we’ll save millions of dollars by using Google Docs instead of over-priced enterprise software. We’ll make case-by-case decisions about whether to build bike-only sidewalks, rather than making blanket commitments to build 30 miles of them (as my opponents have done to satisfy a given voting bloc).” 

Winton said he’s the only candidate offering ideas to significantly reform government and curb spending. 

Woodruff said she would adopt a few key financial principles right away if elected to hold the line on property taxes. 

She said the checkbook level spending reports would provide more information about how money is spent and would increase accountability.

As mayor she would invest in projects that create long-term, living wage careers. 

“We must stop shoveling money into projects that generate jobs for only a short-period of time. As mayor, I would work to develop our river front, especially the Upper Harbor Terminal, as a means of generating year-round, living-wage careers,” she said. 

She would also work on creating a framework for infrastructure investments to ensure that “existing infrastructure and future investments are optimized to serve 25–50 year growth plans.”