St. Paul’s 1% sales tax bump would fund parks, reconstruction of ‘main streets,’ not fill potholes
The St. Paul City Council approved a ballot measure last week that will ask residents this fall to vote on a 1% sales tax increase to collect nearly $1 billion over the next two decades to fund parks facilities and reconstruct roads.
There was just one “no” vote from a council member who said the details of the proposed construction plans didn’t turn out as initially presented in the wake of a massive pothole season.
St. Paul Public Works Director Sean Kershaw hasn’t been shy about the city’s backlogged need for road repairs.
“Our starting point in this effort was we need a source that will pay, in the case of streets, about $30 million a year, you know, to help us get caught up on our main streets,” Kershaw said in an interview on Wednesday.
It’s no different for the city’s 184 parks and 26 recreation centers which are looking at about $100 million of deferred maintenance, Parks and Recreation Director Andy Rodriguez said.
“So we can trickle away at those things year to year but the longer we wait, the more costs will accumulate,” Rodriguez added.
The “dire need,” according to Kershaw and Rodriguez, was what led to Mayor Melvin Carter’s December proposal to raise the citywide sales tax by 1%. In June, the Minnesota Legislature authorized St. Paul and more than three dozen other cities and counties to seek voter approval of the additional tax.
Then, last week, St. Paul City Council approved the language of the ballot measure that will go to the voters in the fall.
The resolution got a “yes” vote from all but Council Member Jane Prince.
“The devil is in the details, and we as a council just never dug into those details,” she said on Wednesday, voicing concern about the possibility of raising the citywide sales tax to nearly 10%, “among the very highest in the state.”
Prince, who represents Ward 7 on the city’s East Side, said when city leaders held a press conference late last year, she thought the money would, at least in part, be going to fill potholes. That’s not the case.
In actuality, the increase would cover deferred park maintenance, build a new recreation center, among several capital parks projects, and fund the reconstruction of portions of the city’s most traveled streets.
“I believe that people believed that it would impact the quality of their residential streets,” Prince said. “Having an event at the asphalt plant and talking about potholes when we’re going up to the Legislature to ask for this money, I think was somewhat misleading.”
Asked to respond, Kershaw said, “It’s not misleading at all for two reasons.”
“We have potholes because our streets are so old and need to be rebuilt, and this program will rebuild the streets. It’s also not misleading because this program has identified some of the worst streets out there,” he continued.
“I don’t disagree that that’s work that needs to be done,” Prince added. “But people do not know that the sales tax use will be limited to that. I believe that people didn’t know that.”
Prince also raised concerns about the impact to businesses if people decide to shop outside of the city because of the high tax.
That was the only funding option other than an even larger increase to property taxes, according to Kershaw and Rodriguez.
Public Works is working on a “short-term solution” to patch potholes throughout the city by the end of the year by “taking money from one source of maintenance and putting it toward towards a more urgent one,” Kershaw said.