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Thursday, September 10, 2009

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Good news (and bad) at a city budget hearing
9/8/2009 10:28:00 AM Email this articlePrint this article
graphic courtesy of Ramsey County
Good news (and bad) at a city budget hearing Scott Nichols news editor Budgets might be tight, but at least crime is down. St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington unearthed the good news Sept. 2 at a City Council budget hearing. The police budget was up for discussion, and council members also got a primer on the city's tax trends from Ramsey County's tax department head Chris Samuels. Overall, crime is down 14 percent from the three-year period 2005-2008, with homicides down 25 percent over the same period, according to Harrington. Also decreasing during the same three-year period are: • Rapes, down 29 percent since 2005, from 209 to 147 cases in 2008. • Aggravated assaults, down 10 percent. • Commercial burglary, down 43 percent. • Robberies, down 10 percent (since 2006). That said, the budget crunch has led Harrington to consider reducing his force of 584 by 54 officers, at a cost-savings of $4.6 million. But because of two short-term federal stimulus grants totaling $7.4 million, 34 officers can be retained. Harrington said he could save $620,000 by plans to cut back on fuel usage, removing desk phones for officers who mostly use their cell phones anyway, and curtailing the canine unit's entrance into competitions and exhibitions. "They're a 'nice to have,' not a 'must-have,'" he said of the exhibitions. He can also cut $400,000 from his budget if he removes non-sworn staff including a crime-prevention coordinator, chaplain, communications technician, and custodian, among others. While given the authority to bring St. Paul's complement of sworn officers up to 630 for 2009, budget cuts were one of the reasons that 14 of the positions were never filled. And while the proposed force of 610 for 2010 isn't ideal, according to Harrington, it won't jeopardize safety. "It certainly means that we won't be able to be as aggressive and as proactive as we'd like to be," Harrington said. "We have to be as creative as possible to not lose ground and I believe that's what this budget does." His goal to eventually replace the rented Ben Doran police substation on Rice Street (closed last year) with a full district office on par with the city-owned Eastern or Western District offices on Payne and Hamline avenues won the vocal support of Ward 5 City Council member Lee Helgen, who said that it is long past time the city moves its Central District team out of the cramped police headquarters and gives them their own space in the city's North End. When Council President Kathy Lantry asked whether the mounted patrol couldn't be considered a luxury in tight budget times, Harrington told them that officers on horses proved invaluable this summer during three solid weeks of patrols around Phalen Park. Ramsey County's Chris Samuels also gave the City Council members some qualified good news, informing them that while his department is indeed witnessing reductions in taxable property value overall, "we're not seeing significant reductions." "There's this perception that the market has tanked. That's not my perception," he said. "I view it as a market correction. Some of these market values weren't real." Overall, he said, St. Paul has lost 7 percent of its residential property value. Which means that if taxes don't go up appreciably, many - but not all - folks in the city could see a tax decrease. "If your home is decreasing 1 percent, you're probably seeing a tax increase. If your home is decreasing 17 percent, you're likely to see a tax decrease," he said. And while many like to rail on banks as irresponsible absentee landlords of vacant homes, Samuels said that the city's foreclosure issues have in fact helped the county with tax delinquency issues, for one simple reason. "Banks don't like paying interest," he said. "They never mow the grass or shovel the snow, but they pay their taxes," said Lantry, giving the audible version of a shrug. Scott Nichols can be reached at eastside@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7816.

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