In a wide-ranging address Tuesday morning, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter revealed a slate of new proposals that would tap into the city's federal pandemic relief to hire police officers, distribute gun safes, bolster a guaranteed-income program, replace lead pipes and more.
"While there is much work ahead, today I stand confident that the state of our city is strong enough, resilient enough and bright enough to continue lighting the path forward," Carter said in his annual state of the city speech, which he delivered virtually. "Together, we will continue our drive to bet on each other. We will continue our unending pursuit of building a better community for our children and grandchildren."
The mayor, who was elected to a second four-year term in November, spent a lengthy portion of his 30-minute annual speech discussing three issues he has described as priorities for 2022: public safety, the COVID-19 pandemic and rent control.
Though Carter touched on a slew of broad goals and new ideas, he said the program details and funding plans for many of his proposals would be worked out later, after engagement with the City Council and the public.
In the wake of a shooting Monday that left one dead and three wounded outside a homicide victim's funeral on St. Paul's West Side, Carter said he plans to propose an ordinance that would require legal firearms to be locked, unloaded and stored separate from ammunition when not under an owner's control.
The mayor also said "in recognition of the challenging economic situation we are all currently in," he will suggest using a portion of the $166 million St. Paul received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to purchase and distribute firearm safes to lawful gun owners.
"This is a common sense way for us to take action on a local level to help keep illegal guns off of our streets, reduce the likelihood that they get into the wrong hands or are used in ways that are counterproductive to our community's goals," said Carter, who has advocated for stricter state and federal laws governing gun ownership.
Over the course of his first term, the mayor has found himself mired between conflicting visions for how St. Paul should promote and protect public safety. As St. Paul experienced a record 38 homicides in 2021, some — including outgoing Police Chief Todd Axtell — have urged Carter to increase police staffing and officer compensation.
In his address, Carter said he plans to launch a second police academy later this year. He also revealed plans to accept at least a portion of a $3.75 million grant from the U.S. Justice Department that would partly fund the salaries of an undetermined number of new officers. The city will use American Rescue Plan dollars to cover the remaining costs of the hires, Carter said in a news conference after his speech.
Facing simultaneous calls to invest in nonpolice public safety efforts, Carter reiterated his vision for some of the community-first public safety programs that have been a pillar of the mayor's agenda since he took office.
"Just as news of increased domestic violence, gunfire and carjackings remind us of the critical need to invest in our emergency response systems, videos of officer-involved shootings, high-speed pursuits and no-knock warrants keep us grounded in our continued need for accountability and reform," Carter said.
In an interview Tuesday, Council President Amy Brendmoen said: "I'm grateful to see action on the community-first public safety initiatives. I know the council is anxious to see this work fully activated."
Carter suggested using an unspecified amount of federal pandemic aid to cover a suite of other proposals, including an extension of the city's guaranteed income pilot that would distribute monthly payments to 300 low-income families for two years.
He also briefly mentioned upcoming proposals to use the relief money to create jobs replacing lead pipes, extend Saturday hours at rec centers, install public art, add ambassadors to patrol the city's skyways and assign city employees to work in vacant downtown storefronts in hopes of kickstarting a return to St. Paul's urban core.
Though Carter has not laid out a specific plan or timeline for the city's entire workforce to return to their offices, he said "it's critical to bring folks back downtown." The mayor added that he is working closely with the council to eventually transition out of the state of emergency the city has been operating under since 2020.
Carter said he is working with public health experts to closely monitor local COVID-19 data as he considers whether to rescind the city's mask mandate.
"I am hopeful to roll back this measure in the near future, as we continue weighing how best to care for our community's health and well-being," he said.
In his address, Carter announced that he is asking the council to approve an amendment to the city's voter-approved rent control ordinance that would grant a 15-year exemption to new housing construction.
The suggested tweak has rankled activists who campaigned for the rent control ordinance last year and say such a change goes against the will of the voters.
"We cannot afford to lose the thousands of housing units currently on pause while we wait for bureaucratic processes at City Hall to run their course," said Carter, referencing feedback from developers who have said the new St. Paul ordinance has prompted lenders to back out of projects.
Staff writer Zoë Jackson contributed to this report.