St. Paul City Council to consider ballot questions Wednesday for roads, parks and early childcare

The St. Paul City Council will weigh on Wednesday whether to put two tax-related questions on the November 2023 and November 2024 voter ballots. The first involves sales tax funding for roads and parks and the second is aimed at raising funds for early childcare initiatives through a dedicated, 10-year property tax levy.

The council could vote Wednesday on two resolutions in support of moving forward with both citywide ballot questions.

On Friday, former City Council President Kathy Lantry and St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm announced they were leading an outreach effort to support a “yes” vote on a likely Nov. 7 ballot question that could raise nearly $1 billion in St. Paul sales tax revenue for arterial road reconstruction and parks spending over 20 years.

The proposal, which would triple the city portion of the sales tax from .5 to 1.5%, was generated by St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s office but has met strong resistance from the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, citing the pandemic-era challenges facing the city’s restaurants and retailers.

“As a lifelong St. Paul resident and former public servant I am voting YES for a sales tax to ensure we make needed investments in our streets and parks without placing the costs entirely on our residents through a property tax,” said Lantry, chair of “Vote YES for St. Paul” coalition, in a written statement. Hahm, the effort’s treasurer, called the effort a “generational investment in park improvements.”

Ballot questions

The proposed ballot question would be phrased as follows: “Should the City of St. Paul establish a one percent (1%) sales and use tax over the next 20 years to generate $738,000,000 to repair and improve streets and bridges, $246,000,000 to improve parks and recreation facilities, and associated bonding costs? A vote YES means that these costs would be funded through the new one percent (1%) sales and use tax. A vote NO means that the majority of these costs would be funded by other local revenue sources, primarily from increased property taxes.”

Also Wednesday, the city council will consider whether to call for a special election to be held on Nov. 5, 2024, for a citywide ballot question asking “whether the city should create a dedicated fund for subsidies for children’s early care and education through a property tax levy.”

If approved, the special levy would be structured to raise $2 million in the first year, $4 million in the second year, $6 million in the third and so forth, reaching $20 million by year 10. That’s likely to increase property taxes for a median-single family home by $16 in the first, $32 in the second year, $48 in the third year and so forth, exceeding $150 in year 10. If approved, a pilot program could launch in 2025-2026.

Council Members Rebecca Noecker and Nelsie Yang have taken the lead on promoting the effort, which has the backing of a coalition of early childhood educators. The resolution on the council agenda notes that 27 percent of St. Paul children live under the federal poverty level and half live under 185 percent of the federal poverty level, the threshold used by the state to indicate the need for means-tested early learning scholarships.

State-backed programs such as Head Start, Early Head Start, the Child Care Assistance Program and pre-kindergarten through the St. Paul Public Schools often maintain long wait lists.

St. Paul would need an additional $39 million annually

The state Legislature this year added resources for programs serving kids up to 5 years of age, which could increase state funding next year for early learning and child care assistance programs in St. Paul by $22 million to $78 million. Even so, the city would need an additional $39 million annually to reach children 0-2 years old living at 185 percent of the federal poverty level, according to an independent analysis by public policy consultant Robert Grunewald.

Last September, the city council passed a resolution establishing an early learning legislative advisory committee to explore how the city could structure an early care and education program. The committee made its final recommendation to the council in March. The resolution calls for a citywide program that would be operated by the city through a new or existing city office or department, with input from an advisory committee of parents, providers and community representatives.

The funds would provide public subsidies for two purposes: to help families afford the cost of care or early learning programs, and to help providers expand capacity and pay competitive wages and benefits or access professional development opportunities.

The goal is to fully fund childcare and early learning costs for families at 185 percent of the federal poverty level, and if funding doesn’t cover the cost, then to prioritize families on a point system considering factors like income, homelessness, foster care status and parents under the age of 21.

The providers would be located in St. Paul except under extenuating circumstances, according to the resolution.

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