E-DEMOCRACY | Thoughts on St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s budget proposal

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From: Frederick Melo 

Date: Aug 13 17:01 CDT 

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s 2013 budget proposal includes: 

1.9 percent levy increase

$1 million reduction in city spending

8 fewer hours at St. Paul Central Library (It’d be closed Mondays)

Fire Department’s Rescue Squad 2 is preserved

Seven police officer vacancies filled

Frogtown Farms receives $1 million toward a new urban park and demonstration farm off Minnehaha and Victoria

Sidewalk at 6th Street in Lowertown gets expanded for outdoor patios 

… And many more choice tidbits, here:  http://www.twincities.com/stpaul/ci_21303013 

One thing that’s not in the story is the future of the Bedlam Theatre across from the Union Depot (where Rumours and Innuendos was). They hope to begin theatrical events and serve light food fare in October, then remodel their kitchen this winter and serve hot food and liquor and dance nights after that. It’s not a sports bar — it’s a “theatre bar.”   

 

From: Bernie Hesse 

Date: Aug 13 19:19 CDT 

For the first time in 28 years of paying property taxes in St. Paul I am wondering what or where we can go.  Budgets often reflect values or priorities, and many people value different things. I value safe streets I value good schools I value safety nets for folks who need assistance.  I question subsidies to companies who don’t pay a living wage I question tax breaks to companies or retailers who crush union organizing drives I question incentives for corporations while we have so many people out of work.  I am neither a anti-tax person or one who wants to run up the tab for future generations.  We need to get a lot of people back working and a economy that works for all.

 

From: John Mannillo 

Date: Aug 13 21:44 CDT 

At today’s budget address, the Mayor thanked the building owners of Park Square Court and the Railroader buildings (where the Bulldog and Barrio restaurants are located) in Lowertown for their support of a sidewalk extension out into Sixth Street.  The Mayor’s office and these two building owners favor a new permanent concrete sidewalk extending out 18 feet on the block facing Mears Park.  In 2010, I was asked to chair a community meeting to discuss this idea. There was considerable opposition from some residents, building owners and business owners from the area.  Some of the issues raised were as follows: 

o       Permanent loss of 22 metered on-street parking spaces including revenue from $52,000 to more than $90,000 for every future year.  The Board of the Saint Paul Farmers Market has now formerly opposed the loss of this parking.

o       Changes to traffic patterns on the busiest west bound Downtown street including 500 buses per day.  (This is the street I-94 exits on one block to the east).

o       Removal of two lanes of parking and adding an extra drive lane for one block. The City has claimed this will speed up and calm traffic at the same time.

o       Forever change the historic character and street grid of the most significant part of Lowertown.  This street grid line has been in place since the 1870’s.

o       Create permanent seating space that will not be usable about seven or eight months each year. (Even during the season, too hot, cold, windy and wet days affect usage).

o       Establish permanent, undesirable conditions for future business owners. (Tenants on the ground floor of these buildings will continue to change as has often happened since 1886). There is no guarantee there will be long-term demand or a desire for sidewalk dining from the future business owners for this location. 

There clearly are downsides and unknowns to any sidewalk extensions, especially on a busy bus route. But there are also some possible benefits for more street activities and pedestrian experiences.  As a compromise solution, I proposed, had built and installed a prototype for a seasonal extension over 5 days in September 2010.  The cost for a temporary café is a small fraction of the cost when compared to a permanent concrete extension that requires moving storm drains, curbs, trees and utilities. Similar versions of these “pop-up cafes” or “parklets” have been installed in San Francisco, NY and Chicago to name a few cities. Installing a temporary pop-up cafe would give Saint Paul the opportunity to try out the sidewalk extension idea without an enormous public expense, permanent loss of parking and loss of original historic character.  If it doesn’t work in this location or the type of businesses change, we can move the sidewalk extension to another location within the City.  

Recently the City Council unanimously adopted the Greater Lowertown Master Plan that strongly encourages the use of temporary/seasonal cafes and plazas. Page 100 states: 

“Seasonal cafes are an effective and efficient way to improve the public realm and pedestrian experience.  They should be strongly encouraged throughout Lowertown, but especially in the restaurant/retail cluster around Mears Park and the Depot.” 

It even used a photo of my prototype from 2010. This Master Plan was voted on and approved by the Capitol River Community Council, Planning Commission and Heritage Preservation Commission, prior to the City Council’s adoption. So what is the point of adopting Master Plans if folks so easily set them aside in exchange for their own special interests? A concrete extension on Sixth Street is an expensive permanent change for a temporary perceived need.  Ironically the Mayor is proposing to cut existing City parking revenue in his budget address that calls for cuts in services for the people and businesses of Saint Paul. 

 

From: Jim Buscher 

Date: Aug 13 22:51 CDT 

I was a bit surprised to hear the idea of extending the sidewalk in Lowertown resurrected.  There are a couple points I would question though. 

The loss of parking meters and revenue.  I’m skeptical the city would experience any loss of money.  I’ve seen many underutilized spaces on nearby streets, particularly 7th.  If the city were to take away the meters on 6th, I think it likely cars will just park in spaces that were once going largely unused. 

I haven’t noticed any problems due to the loss of street parking on 4th St due to the light rail.  There is still an abundant amount of street parking spaces on side streets and other blocks.  The loss of parking on 4th simply shifted the parked cars to other streets, lots, or ramps.  I don’t know how you can argue the loss of the street grid due to the sidewalk extension either.  The road and its route still exists after all.  It’s just not as wide anymore.  We now have train tracks on 4th Street and I never once heard any concerns regarding a loss of the “street grid”. 

Also the proposed “pop up” extension didn’t seem to attract much enthusiasm.  I recall when it was installed,  I never once saw anyone sitting there.  Frankly it looked unsafe and gimmicky.  The orange cones and rope/chain on the street side looked ridiculous.  It just didn’t look safe at all. 

I was in favor of the permanent sidewalk extension when it was initially proposed.  I’d certainly take it over a temporary pop up one no question.  I also think any future business that located on the block after the Bulldogs, Barrios, and Bins are long gone, could see the wider sidewalk as a benefit to their business locating in those spaces.  I say give it a try.  If the building and business owners want to cover the cost, let at it.  It’s not as if the sidewalk extension can’t be undone if it turns out to be problematic.  That might be costly, but as the saying goes, “you never fail until you stop trying”.

 

From: Tom Goldstein 

Date: Aug 13 23:55 CDT 

I agree with Bernie. I’m sure the mayor would say that he agrees as well, but his budget is full of contradictions. John Mannillo points out a specific example regarding sidewalk extensions and the shortsighted approach regarding making them permanent, and I’ve noted in the Highland Villager how the city will shift $5.5 million from TIF, STAR, ROW, and other accounts to provide funding for a Saints stadium yet has forced budget cuts on other departments, including forestry, which means the many boulevard trees that have been lost to insects or disease will be deferred to a four-year cycle instead of the present three years, which itself is poor stewardship given that trees, besides helping to absorb carbon in the atmosphere, also beautify a neighborhood and provide shade from the intense summer sunlight. (Or, as Minneapolis Council Member Don Samuels noted about his city replacing 2500 trees in North Minneapolis a year after a tornado hit there: ” a natural environment can deter crime and even enhance a neighborhood’s psyche.”)  

I mention trees in particular not just because my boulevard has been “naked” for the past three summers, but because these are similar complaints that I heard during the Randy Kelly years when budgets were cut to keep taxes from rising. Now we get higher taxes and budget cuts to boot. What I find especially cynical about the mayor’s budget is that he’s still able to find $1 million extra for the police department, knowing full well that anybody who questions those expenses will be accused of “against” our men and women in blue or “anti-public safety.” However, $1 million for 7 officers works out to $142,857 per person, which is more than double the starting pay of $49,000 to $64,000 for a patrol officer, leaving one to wonder what the other $550,000 to $650,000 will go for. Regardless of how it’s being budgeted, the idea that St. Paul’s safety will automatically be compromised because we don’t have the full complement of officers on the street is a theory that deserves to be challenged, especially given the revelation that we’ve been operating a police crime lab for years that’s an embarrassment to forensic science. Of course, having a serious dialogue about what our police department needs to be successful in this community (and not based on a national average), including the possibility that we can function just fine with the existing 593 sworn officers and 200 civilian staff, might jeopardize the mayor’s endorsement by police and firefighters in the next election cycle. And repaying political favors, rather than making decisions that might upset powerful constituencies, is what this mayor has come to be about.  

 

From: Gary Fischbach 

Date: 08:18 CDT 

The money that the person receives in salary versus the cost to the employer is usually double of what the salary is.  The employer (the city) then needs to pay benefits, pension, uniforms, equipment such as sidearm, radios, and possibly a squad car.  So, the total cost to hire a new officer may well be in that range stated. Yes, it is more than double, employing a cop has much more overhead than hiring an accountant.

 

From: Andrew Hine 

Date: 10:03 CDT 

Lowertown has really been blossoming over the last few years; decades even.  The people there have planned and planned and planned and planned.  There’s even a TV show about them.  They have got it going on, and understand what’s happening. 

It’s unclear why anyone would want to meddle at this stage.  So many other places around town – downtown included – are in MUCH greater need. 

Who stands to benefit?  The argument that “you will benefit because more people can eat on the sidewalk” is lame-o.  It is not “pro-business” to do a couple guys a favor at the expense of a neighborhood. When the rents go up, you and I will pay at the tap. 

The Plan was adopted, agreed upon, and now it is being treated as though it doesn’t matter one iota.  We’ve seen this blatant disregard for the voice of the people before, and it fouls the essence of democracy. 

The lost meter revenue is scoffed at, at a time when every little bit counts.  No doubt they City will argue that “most of those meters are hooded or used by Parking Staff, so they aren’t generating revenue now anyway.”  So where will those workers park in the future? 

That sidewalk could be SO much nicer than it is right now without making it wider.  Heaven forbid they build a couple balconies instead.  I’d donate $10.  

 

From: John Mannillo 

Date: 13:04 CDT 

Thanks Jim for your comments and opportunity to clarify my comments. 

•         There is/was  no discussion regarding changes to the Fourth Street grid pattern in Lowertown because there was no change from the LRT. Winding roads, as the two lane changes on Sixth St. however, would change the grid.

•         The “pop-up” extension I installed in 2010 was not expected to be used by the public.  Its purpose was to see what an actual pop-up would look like, how it would function and how it would go up and come down.  To my surprise, the few times when it stopped raining those five days, people did use the chairs. The orange cones would not be needed and were never proposed to remain.   You do make a good point about enthusiasm for sitting out with the traffic.  What happens if after a permanent concrete extension is built, we discover not many people want to use this seating?

•         A vast span of unused concrete sidewalk, which this will be the majority of the time in the best of situations, is not a positive addition. Look at Fifth and Minnesota, Alliance Bank plaza which has been vacant for 40 years.

•         The cost of concrete is estimated by the City at $280,000 ( I think is low).  This does not include filling in the areaway vaults under the existing sidewalk which will require moving of the building utilities.  This could easily cost another $200,000.  Whatever is assessed to the building owners is backed up by Saint Paul taxpayers.  If the buildings don’t succeed in the long run, assessments are paid by the public.  Regardless this is all a burden placed on someone who has to pay for the permanent extension.  A seasonal extension for the entire block face will cost $95,000,000 for everything.

•         I really disagree that the loss of on-street parking is not a problem.  Two years ago, The Mayor, City Council, Chamber of Commerce and Capitol River Council joined forces to start a program called “Create A Spot For Business”.  The primary impetus was to solve the lack of available and convenient on-street parking. As a result, meter rates have increased and payment by credit card is now going in place.  There is a fairly large projected increase in revenue to help pay for the new technology.  The good news is it should help free up spaces for Downtown businesses. 

In 2009 the City audited these 22 meters.  The income even then was $26,000. It was then and  still is common to see that these meters are almost always full, but if you do the math even that was low.  We discovered that city employees with parking passes were using most of the spaces.  It was clearly hurting business owners, so the city now rents a parking lot on Seventh Street for DSI employees to free up those meters.  When I calculated the potential income by multiplying chargeable hours, subtracting 20% vacancy, plus holidays and after hours, and even removing 6 meters that may come out for a bike lane, the City will lose $52,551 every year.  Street and Traffic has not disputed the calculation when it is adjusted for city workers who had parked for free. These meters could actually max out at $90,331.  That doesn’t include fines or future rate increases. 

Finally the statement:  “[Temporary/Seasonal] cafes should be strongly encouraged throughout Lowertown, but especially in the restaurant/retail cluster around Mears Park and the Depot” , is not only my opinion but a quote from the Greater Lowertown Master Plan.  The following story on temporary parks is from the Chicago Tribune a couple of weeks ago:   http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/theskyline/2012/08/does-it-make-sense-to-turn-on-street-parking-spaces-into-miniature-urban-parks-and-plazas-where-people-can-sit-eat-check-th.html 

 

From: Gerald Mischke 

Date: 15:34 CDT 

Having read Mayor Coleman’s 2013 Budget Address I would like to paraphrase something he mentioned on Page 9 of his address when he mentioned the Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI). 

Mayor Coleman wrote, “I am proud of the work being done by DSI and its Director, Ricardo Cervantes. But, as Council President Lantry, Councilmember Brendmoen and others have suggested, it is time to do a thorough assessment of how the department operates. It will be an opportunity to examine how the department is run and how we can create a better, more efficient process for our customers – whether you are an already-established business, a new prospective employer or a resident of our city hoping to remodel your house.” 

I believe that a similar kind of assessment needs to be done with the St. Paul Police and Fire departments as well. When I hear that Saint Paul will have 610 police officers (776.8 FTEs) and 433 firefighters (471 FTEs) in 2013 out of a total of 2,908 city employees (Nearly 36% of city employees and combined department budgets that account for over 61% of the City’s General Fund – approximately $135,472,649), I am a bit leery that there isn’t a considerable amount of fat that could be cut away without sacrificing public safety. Take for example what we recently discovered about the St. Paul Crime Lab. 

I have been supportive of unions in the private sector (having once been a union organizer), but St. Paul’s Police and Fire departments have become defacto political operatives whose endorsements serve only to keep politicians from looking too closely at their books (assuming they are read at all) or meddling with their FTEs. 

So I say it is high time to do a thorough assessment of how the police and fire departments operate. We need a serious examination of how these departments are run and how we can create a better, cost-effective, and more efficient process for Saint Paul. 

 See entire E-Democracy discussion thread here. 

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