The St. Paul City Council on Wednesday pushed forward a proposal asking voters to raise property taxes to pay for child care for low-income families, overriding Mayor Melvin Carter's veto that aimed to block it from the 2024 ballot.
Advocates celebrated the vote as a major step forward in a years-long effort to create a city program to help tackle its child care crisis. But a defiant Carter said even if voters approve the measure next year, he would not implement it as currently written — setting up a potential power struggle with the council.
Council Member Nelsie Yang, one of the measure's sponsors, said that cities around the country "have demonstrated that early learning initiatives like this are doable and that they have a huge impact on preparing children for kindergarten and helping parents enter the workforce."
Carter called the measure "nakedly dishonest."
"This is a $100 million-plus proposal that we to date have still seen no plan for, that we to date have still seen no budget for, that has insufficient resources associated with it, and that frankly no one is suggesting that they have any idea how to make it work," said the mayor, using a pair of whiteboards during a news conference to sketch out his concerns.
The ballot question will ask voters to approve a property tax levy increase that would be distributed as subsidies to low-income families and child care providers by a city department or office. The council's resolution says they will engage the community over the next year to determine more program specifics.
"The mayor has received numerous invitations to be a part of this process for the last seven years," said Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who has been part of a group designing and advocating for a program since 2017. "I'm hopeful that he will now choose to engage in this process with us so that we can design a program that works for him and that works for families. But should that not be the case, I would find it very concerning if he would then choose to ignore the will of the voters."
The fund would increase by $2 million each year for 10 years, when it would max out at $20 million. In year one, a median-value homeowner would pay $16; in year 10, they'd pay $160. The council's resolution says it wants to fully cover the costs of care for 0- to 5-year-olds in families making at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, which is about $55,500 for a family of four.
But the resolution also says St. Paul needs an estimated $39 million per year to fund care for children ages 2 and under at that income threshold. There would be additional costs to pay for care for 3- and 4-year-olds, partial grants for families above the income threshold, funding for providers and overhead expenses.
"If this were an honest proposal that actually matched spending with revenues, then my concerns would be in a different space," Carter said. "Right now my concern is that this whole thing is about making empty promises — big empty promises — to our smallest children in our community."
Noecker said the program is designed to start small and grow to keep up with interest in enrollment. The council acknowledges that there are greater funding needs than the levy would cover, she added.
"I've been very open about the fact that this is a really big deal," Noecker said. "This is the biggest investment any Minnesota city has made in its children. … Any insinuation by the administration that we are trying to hide anything really feels false and kind of mean."
The mayor said there is "no scenario in which the city can administer this program as it's currently framed."
"They can't get the revenue without me directing my finance team to tell the county to collect the taxes," Carter said. He also questioned whether the ballot question would withstand court scrutiny.
Noecker said the question has been approved by city attorneys. She also said St. Paul has recently launched initiatives — including its lead pipe replacement and guaranteed income programs — that don't cover the entire city's needs.
The council split 5-2, the same as it did for its first vote on the question. Council Members Russel Balenger and Mitra Jalali voted against the measure.
The council has the power to change the resolution at a later date, and it will soon have some new faces. All seven seats are up for election this fall, and four members are not seeking additional terms.
Council President Amy Brendmoen and Council Member Chris Tolbert said they would not vote for the current proposal at the ballot box, but think residents should have the opportunity to weigh in on the plan.
"I don't know if it's the right way to fund this, but I think it's a really important conversation for us to have," Tolbert said.