St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter has asked his police department to trim more than $9 million from its 2021 budget.
In an e-mail to employees, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said the proposed $9.2 million cut will mean eliminating jobs, both sworn officers and civilians, "at all ranks."
"I know this is a hit to our collective soul, especially given the crime trends we're seeing, the ever-increasing calls for service and the needs of the city," Axtell wrote. "I shared with the Mayor my disappointment and urged him to reconsider."
Axtell's e-mail was first reported by KSTP. In an interview Monday, Carter said city leaders haven't made any final decisions on the proposed 2021 budget. His annual budget address is scheduled for next month, and community members will have an opportunity to give feedback online.
"This economy is going to require us to make some really hard decisions, because we can only spend the money that we have," Carter said. "And frankly, I anticipate bringing forward a budget that I would likely never propose under any other circumstances."
Every year, the mayor asks each department to develop a plan to meet proposed budget targets — an exercise that often includes figuring out how to make cuts. This year, St. Paul is already facing a multimillion-dollar 2020 budget shortfall due to unexpected expenses and revenue losses related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
City leaders will have to figure out how to fill that gap while also mapping out a lean 2021 budget. They are considering a range of cost-saving measures, including continuing discretionary spending and hiring freezes, leaving positions vacant as employees leave or retire and tapping emergency reserves.
Council President Amy Brendmoen said in an interview that the mayor's office is also negotiating a salary freeze in union contracts, which would save money on salary costs across departments. The mayor's goal is to keep the 2021 property tax levy increase as low as possible, which the council would support, she said.
For police, the belt-tightening could mean unprecedented layoffs of active duty officers — a measure city officials have avoided for more than 20 years.
"It's uncharted territory for us," said St. Paul Police Federation President Paul Kuntz, who called the $9 million figure "staggering" for one department to absorb. "It makes everybody less safe. It puts the citizens at risk. And it puts cops, who are asked to do more and more with less and less, at risk."
The potential cuts come amid a troubling surge in gun violence in the capital city, where reported firearm discharges have more than doubled when compared to this time last year. The first two weeks of June were particularly violent, as shots-fired calls quintupled from 2019.
At least 110 people have been shot in St. Paul this year, including 18 fatally. Homicides are on track to surpass 2019's record high in shooting deaths.
The police department has a more than $100 million budget this year — the largest of any city department — including about 780 full-time employees. Carter cut five sworn officer positions from the budget in 2020, after adding nine in 2019.
The City Council also approved a $1.7 million community-first public safety budget — which Carter proposed in November after several violent months that brought the city's homicide total to a 25-year high — but the programs it's intended to pay for have been slow to roll out.
The proposed cut comes as people across the country, spurred by George Floyd's killing in May by Minneapolis police, are calling for local governments to defund or dismantle police departments. But while the Minneapolis City Council is moving forward with a proposed charter amendment that would allow major changes to their city's police force, St. Paul council members have shown little appetite for doing the same.
Brendmoen said cuts to the police budget won't necessarily mean that services will disappear — rather, they might move to another department or take a different form. Police IT work could move into the Technology and Communications department, she said, or routine traffic stops could be done by someone who's not a sworn officer.
"I know the police have said to all of us that they can't do it all either," she said, "so I think that they would welcome some relief as well."
In his e-mail, Axtell said he's hopeful that the final 2021 budget won't include the full $9.2 million in cuts to his department. He noted that initial projections often change, that residents can weigh in and that the City Council will approve the final budget.
"But I can't make any promises, other than to support you and to be a tireless advocate for our department and the safety of the city," Axtell wrote. "Don't lose hope. Instead, remember that I believe in each and every one of you. Keep doing what others won't. And know that I'm so damn proud of you."
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509.