A City that Works for Everyone

By Shawn Smith, of Kenwood

Our city’s elected officials reiterate often that Minneapolis should be a city that works for everyone. This is a worthy platform. All people that live here should have equal opportunity to live their lives in liberty and pursuit of their dreams. But, are city budgets constructed in a way that will not work for all of us after all?

In Mayor Hodges 2017 recently approved budget, there are line items intended to work for everyone. Increasing police enables foot patrols and engagement. Hiring small business navigators is a noble initiative to help small businesses navigate the perhaps too-complex city licensing and regulations. Providing resources to improve economic and educational outcomes is inspiring to many. Street paving programs will keep cars out of the tire shop. It is hard to argue against these.

But even within some of these priorities and others not mentioned, there are questionable expenditures. And it’s time to give a “woot woot” to those that make this possible, the taxpayers. Why can’t this group get a break so the city continues to work for them too…and be good shepherds of our money.

City leaders have imposed a steady march of increased property taxes over the years, with the only exception this century being 2014. Taxes for many in Minneapolis increased 50% or more from 2007 through 2012 due to a declining residential tax base and a sluggish commercial base. Residential homeowners were asked (#notasked) to shoulder the burden to keep the city afloat. For homeowners, these were painful years because monthly mortgage payments increased and put significant pressure on household budgets. We had to cut back, and the city government continued to grow and spend.

But now values are up. Hundreds of shiny new condos are online downtown. Office space is near capacity. Where is the relief and payback for shouldering the burden of those lean years? In a year where the city is flush with cash, the city is choosing to spend 7.6% more, adding 59 positions and an incremental annual spend of $90M for 2017.   Opinions will vary on whether each new spending item is outrageous (some are) or justified (some are). But while no one budget item is overtly outrageous to most taxpayers, it is the sum total that should be.

Property taxes are a real problem. Just talk to people. It is a problem regardless of whether the voter is a downtown Millennial or a Kenwood near-retiree; Democrat or Republican or Independent. Real estate agents talk about how the taxes are a reason not to buy in Minneapolis and drives buyers to Edina, Golden Valley.   Many of my neighbors look at the future and wonder if they will be able to live in their family homes even after the mortgage is paid. Cities that we model, such as Portland, Seattle, and Denver have tax rates less than ½ of what we pay.

And then there is the issue of transparency. In the Truth and Taxation notice, the city chose to say, “Thanks to growth in the tax base, 1/3 of all residential properties may see a decrease or no increase in the city portion of their property taxes.” But this phrasing avoids the reality: 70% of residential property owners will bear an increase or see no decrease. Was relief ever a consideration at City Hall?

Even if we don’t get a tax cut, consider these points on how the city has set its priorities:

The city has millions when it comes to bicycling infrastructure, but our alleys are in disrepair and even unpaved.

The city is spending millions on outreach programming when our schools have to be funded by a special voter-approved levy.

The city is adding positions at City Hall when most mature companies require that head count be kept neutral.

The city is retrofitting our streets with pedestrian bump-outs but we are assessed to repair our sidewalks.

Hennepin County doesn’t fare much better on transparency. Their Truth In Taxation notifications, which are supposed to be our source of truth, are inaccurate. At first glance, total property taxes appear to be going down. But on closer inspection, the notices do not include the voter approved school levy. A Correct “Final Truth in Taxation notice is not going to come. This means that many homeowners will not know their true level of taxes until it is time to pay them.

Back to Minneapolis. We need a city that works for all of us. Many appreciate that the city is trying to work for those that need some help along the way. But that must be balanced with working for the people that own homes and make initiatives possible. And we hear all the time that we are not doing enough.

The city responds to citizens that take the time to engage. Join me in vocalizing the need for lower property tax levels and spending accountability. Study your Truth in Taxation statement so you know where your money is going. Vote with your voice before you vote with your feet, as some are doing by moving to neighboring Golden Valley. Then, we can truly accomplish a city that works for everyone.