St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter sat down with the Star Tribune on Dec. 17 to reflect on his second year in office — a year dominated by the debate over organized trash collection, City Council campaigns and a spike in gun violence — and talk about what's next (including his plans to run for re-election). The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: The 2020 budget includes a 5.85% tax levy increase. This is the sixth consecutive levy increase in the past six years. What can you tell taxpayers about why they're seeing these increases year after year?
A: Obviously, the cost of doing business, the cost of operating the city government, goes up every year. The good thing is that our tax base has increased every year as well. So last year and this year, the levy increases that we proposed were both below the annual increases that we've seen in our tax capacity.
… As we think about St. Paul right now — which is home to over 30,000 people more than just ten years ago, and we're projecting an additional 30,000 people living in the city over the next 20 years — our ability to continue to invest and support the high-quality level of public services that St. Paul residents have grown to expect is especially critical now, but will only get even more so as our city continues to grow.
Q: Given that expected population growth and the increasing costs of providing these services, are you anticipating that additional levy increases will be needed in coming years?
A: Every year is different. So for example, this year, we started with a $17 million budget gap. And that means that if we just left the budget as it was last year, we'd have to cut $17 million worth of services. And so we found a middle space that included making over $4 million worth of cuts that included, thankfully, some additional [local government aid] support from the state as well.
I think we're going to have to continue to be very intentional around identifying the opportunities for savings and efficiencies, opportunities to find other revenue streams outside of our property taxes and being incredibly judicious about spending and about when we ask for additional tax revenue to support city services.
Ultimately, I think the foundational challenge is that leaving our tax levy at zero growth would mean a $17 million reduction in police services, fire services, recreation centers, libraries — all the things that we've come to really rely on to help us make our city work. And I have heard loud and clear from city residents that especially right now, we can't afford to try to cut our way to prosperity.
Q: St. Paul is already taking a lot of steps to mitigate climate change, and we're going to be seeing more and more of that. You've really positioned yourself as a leader on this — you're part of the Climate Mayors Steering Committee. In your view, what can a mayor do to address an issue that is as massive and global as climate change?
A: It's sort of impossible for one mayor to change the curve acting by him or herself on climate crisis, and this is why those national networks are really important. Because I'm not one mayor trying to address climate crisis — I'm one of hundreds of mayors across the country who have joined together to say, we're going to meet our country's goals under the Paris Climate Accord.
… Our work in St. Paul really centers around transportation and buildings, because we know that those two sources ending up being the source for the overwhelming majority of our emissions in our community. And so things like our Race to Reduce, which is our simple "Biggest Loser"-style game to challenge building owners to save money by reducing their emissions in their building ... combined with our work on bike lanes and sidewalks, making St. Paul a pedestrian-friendly city, electric charging hubs for people with electric bikes and electric car-sharing, those things are going to be designed to help reduce St. Paul's emissions, and they will, significantly.
And doing those things in concert with those other hundreds of cities across America — that's what's going to have a fundamental impact nationwide.
Q: So, organized trash — we have to talk about.
A: Never heard of it.
Q: Obviously, that was a very long, intense discussion this year. I saw it come up in City Council campaigns, budget discussions, a lot of meetings. What does the debate about organized trash say about St. Paul?
A: I think it says that we're a city that wants to roll up our sleeves and get involved in the policy stuff. One of the things that I love about being mayor of St. Paul is our residents show me literally every day that they don't want to just be blindly confident that the mayor and the council are doing good work on their behalf, but they really want to plug in and get engaged and get involved in the work.
… We sometimes, I think, have a disconnect between the conversation at City Hall and the conversation out in our community. I'll admit — I don't know that I've admitted this publicly before — I expected the 'yes' to carry that vote. I didn't expect the margin that ended up happening. And like I said, sometimes the conversations inside City Hall or on social media end up feeling like the reality in our community is fundamentally different than it really is.
… I've said since Day 1, and I continue to believe, that there are programmatic challenges that need to be addressed with regard to organized hauling, and part of that is due to the joys of inheriting a signed contract. And I believe, and I've heard in our communities loud and clear that, one, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater, that it's a fundamentally good program that needs some kind of structural improvements, and two, that if we are going to spend the kind of money that we almost had to spend on trash, if we're really going to be talking about raising taxes to that type of magnitude … that we have a whole lot higher priorities that we need to be focused on as a city.
Q: Another major issue in the later part of this year was the spike in gun violence and homicides in the city. When you presented the supplemental budget, a lot of the department heads were there — [Chief Todd Axtell] wasn't. And then afterward, he issued a statement that said, in part, "I look forward to reviewing the details of the plan once I receive a copy." Why didn't he receive a copy of the plan before your presentation?
A: We put that together relatively swiftly; we had our team researching it and moving it together. And the truth is, the copy that I held up in front of the City Council as I was presenting it was still warm from coming off of the printer, and that was my first time seeing the full and complete copy.
The chief had, of course, been engaged in that process. The chief and I are in almost constant communication. And while much has been made in the couple of times that he and I have disagreed, I'm sure you can imagine how often we have to be in contact about decisions that are critical to the department. At best, folks point to a handful of disagreements that we've had over the course of two years, and the reason is because on the vast majority of things, we agree. And even beyond that, he knows from me, and the rest of my team knows from me, if we agree on everything, that means there's nothing I can learn from you.
He had some scheduled conflict that I honestly don't know what it was, but he was certainly invited to be there, and he's certainly a critical voice that we rely on regarding public safety in our city.
Q: Is there any disagreement between the two of you about how best to address violence in the city?
A: I don't think that he would necessarily disagree with anything I've said, and I don't think that I would necessarily disagree with anything that he's said. What we're balancing in the city is not two different teams that are trying to drive in opposite directions. I think we are a community of folks who have a similar perspective on where we want to go, and grappling with what's the right balance of resources as we build out this comprehensive investment portfolio. That's why he and I can still work together, despite some of those disagreements, because those disagreements aren't fundamental, 'I want the world this way, and you want the world that way' type of challenges. The chief could tell you as well as I could about why after-school programs and youth jobs, community ambassadors are critical to public safety in our city, and it's incumbent on us here in City Hall to work together to determine the best funding mix to make that world a reality.
Q: This summer, I reported on the [Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission, or PCIARC] after the chair and vice-chair resigned and said, essentially, that they didn't feel the police department was allowing them to be effective. And they said something similar, publicly, to what [former human rights director] Jessica Kingston said last year, that the police department was not passing along all the misconduct complaints to the commission. And some of my reporting confirmed that — I found that, even though this isn't what the online survey is supposed to be for, some people were using it to submit complaints.
Do you think there are changes that need to be made to ensure that officers, and the department as a whole, are held accountable?
A: I think the process of accountability is never-ending. I don't think that we'd ever get to a point where I'd say, "No, we're done with that." I think we have come a really long way, and I think there's community leaders and community members who would acknowledge that some of the challenges and realities we see around the country, some of the YouTube videos and things like that that we see coming from around the country, that we have a fundamentally different reality in terms of the relationship between community members and police officers here in St. Paul, and I think that's a really good thing.
We are working with our police department and with our [human rights department], our PCIARC, to make sure that we have a consistent level of expectations around what needs to go to the PCIARC and what doesn't need to go to the PCIARC.
Q: You're almost done with your second year as mayor. Do you like the job?
A: I love it.
Q: What do you like most about it?
A: It's different in many ways than what I anticipated it would be. I joke with [former Mayor] Chris Coleman every time I see him — I tell him, "Sorry, I didn't know."
I don't know that anybody could imagine what this role is like. There's always something going on in some corner of this city, and there's always some challenge to address, and there's always some need to plug in with city staff on.
I think the biggest excitement has been the way people have met our call to come get involved in your city government, all the way from Day 1 when we did our community-based hiring process for our cabinet to just this fall, when we did our public safety engagement events, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 people came out to participate in those. To just walking through Target, and the ladies or folks in Target who want to write a $25 check to help the college savings accounts.
The most amazing part of this journey has been the way people step forward to help, and the way people across this city have just been incredibly generous with their ideas, with their vision for the city, and with their time and energy to help move it forward.
Q: You said it's not quite what you expected. What's different?
A: It's just bigger than I could have imagined. From having to figure out what to do with the 400,000 pounds of limestone that fell onto Wabasha [Street], to getting a text in the middle of the night that someone has been killed in our community, it's a heavy task to try to hold all of those things together, and at the end of the day, I have to rely on the expertise of the folks around me. I have to rely on the data and evidence and research that we can collect, and I have to rely on what I hear as I move through community to sort of be the guidepost.
Q: In these past two years, is there one day that's been the hardest?
A: There have been a bunch of days that have been the hardest. Mayors often say that an officer-involved shooting is one of the hardest things that a city can endure, because it just stretches our spirit and psyche in so many directions at the same time. That's been very difficult. Those experiences have been heartbreaking.
I mentioned the slope failure on Wabasha — I'll always remember that that was the last Saturday in April, because had it been the first Saturday in May, it would have fallen on our Cinco de Mayo parade. And so those moments that are just kind of harrowing like that are moments that I don't think I'll ever forget.
Q: How do you get through those days?
A: No two are really alike, so it's hard to give one cookie-cutter way to do that. Step 1 for me is my faith and family that just gives me a foundation that nothing else would work without. There's our team here, our mayor's office or whatever staff ends up called into play in one of those moments.
And then there's community. One of the things that has been just a godsend over these past couple years is the extent to which, when something ugly or challenging happens in St. Paul, every single time, we see our residents, our businesses, we see our nonprofits just step up to the plate, oftentimes faster than government is even able to catch up with. Just step up to the plate to just help each other in ways that are enormously touching.
Q: Heading into 2020, what are you seeing as the key things you're excited about, key priorities that you want to work on?
A: We talked about in my State of Our City last year, this Fair Housing Policy Agenda that we've been working on with the City Council. I expect that to come forward in the first quarter of the new year. We obviously have to continue our conversation about Ayd Mill Road, which I expect to come forward in the first quarter of the year.
I think most of what we have in front of us is executing well on the investments that our city has chosen to make in our young people, in our families, in our rec centers and libraries. I came in telling folks we need to not just sort of do more and less of the same old stuff we've always done, but we need to fundamentally change what the purpose is of city government, and how city government operates in community. From eliminating late fines in the library to creating our BLS [basic life support] response units in the fire department, that's what we've been doing. We've got a lot of innovative things moving in our departments and we're going to spend a lot of time and energy both executing those things well and evaluating and revamping to make sure that those efforts meet the expectations with which we launched them.
And having a baby.
Q: When is your baby due?
A: March. So we are very excited about that.
Q: How many children do you have?
A: We have a Brady Bunch, we have a blended family, so this will make six for us. The oldest two are out of the house and they feed themselves, so it's four in the house. And they're 13, 11 and 11, so we have a lot of diaper-changers and stroller-pushers and folks who can help.
Q: Have you thought about when your re-election campaign starts?
A: Almost to a fault, we haven't thrown a single fundraiser this year. Our goal has been to govern really well. Our goal has been to focus on executing on the conversations that we had leading up to Election Day in 2017, and on ensuring that when people look at what we spent our time on over these last two years, and over the next two years, and when they compare it to the value proposition I brought forward in 2017, that they'll see a direct match.
… I do intend to run for re-election. I doubt that'll surprise anybody. But I absolutely intend to do it because I absolutely love this work and the long-term transformations that we anticipate as a community are going to take time to build and execute on.
… You're really not going to ask me about ShotSpotter?
Q: I heard that you met with ShotSpotter recently. Did you ask for that, or did they?
A: The CEO of ShotSpotter and I were on the phone a month ago or so. We've texted back and forth a little bit, and I told him if ever he was in town, I'd love a chance to sit down with him and have that conversation.
I could be one of the people, maybe on a short list of folks, who've held this office, who have been in elected office in City Hall, who have had their own lives impacted by gun violence. And that's what leads to my impatience around some of this stuff, and also to my commitment that when we make investments in public safety, that it has to make us safer.
Somebody asked me recently if I'm rethinking my approach to ShotSpotter, and the answer is no. My approach to ShotSpotter has always been, "Show me the data" — that I want to collect as much data and as much evidence as we possibly can, and when we make investments it's not because it feels like the right thing to do, but it's because we have data and evidence that shows us that it can have a fundamental and positive impact on the amount of violent crime that we see in our community. That's our commitment. I think anything short of that would be negligent, and that's the commitment that we're going to keep.
Q: In meeting with ShotSpotter leadership, did you hear anything that was new or that made you rethink this at all?
A: Here's the thing — my assumption is that what ShotSpotter is designed to do, it does well. It's designed to identify the location of a gunshot. When I talk to people in the community, what they say is we have to reduce the amount of gunfire that we have in our city, and we have to increase our ability to hold people accountable when they fire a gun in our city. And so our test needs to be, does this tool and every other tool that we consider, does it meet that test? What's its impact on those things?
... Part of what I wanted to hear is [the ShotSpotter CEO's] response to some of those things, to some of those studies, and how he saw that tool, the technology's value proposition, in light of some of those studies. Part of what he said was, it ends up depending on how it's implemented and how it's enforced, which is intriguing to me. I asked him to follow up with the chief, and I'm looking forward to hearing what comes out as a result of their conversation.
Q: So it sounds like you're open to continuing talking about this.
A: What I've said since Day 1 on public safety is, I want to pursue every strategy that is proven by evidence and empirical research to be able to help us be a safer city, and that continues to be my commitment. But we won't just ignore research. We can't.
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509