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Taxes top agenda at first mayoral debate in St. Paul
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Candidates for mayor of St. Paul met Monday night in their first debate. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Three of the candidates for mayor of St. Paul offered their views on affordable housing, education and downtown development in their first debate on Monday. Incumbent Randy Kelly, former City Councilmember Chris Coleman and Green Party candidate Elizabeth Dickinson participated.

St. Paul, Minn. — The three candidates for mayor all have different visions for the city. They also have different ideas on how well the city's doing. Mayor Randy Kelly, a DFLer who didn't receive his party's endorsement, said this election should be a performance review for him. He says he should be reelected because he's kept property taxes low, built thousands of new housing units and helped revitalize downtown St. Paul.

"In the last nine years, our tax base in St. Paul has grown from $7 billion to $27 billion," he said. "We're expanding our tax base. We're growing more jobs. We're growing more housing and as a result, St. Paul is going to be more prosperous. But we have to be very focused in terms of why we raise property taxes so we don't stop that prosperity."

Kelly has recommended a 3-percent property tax increase in his latest budget to hire new police officers and fire fighters. It's the first property tax hike in St. Paul in a decade. He says the increase is necessary because the city has seen state aid drop by more than $50 million in the last two years.

Chris Coleman, who received the DFL endorsement, says Kelly should have considered a property tax increase much sooner in his first term. Coleman says the city's infrastructure has suffered because of a lack of funding.

"We have a revenue problem. We don't put our money where our mouth is. We don't say that we're going to raise the kind of revenues that we need to. So wealth is being accumulated in fewer and fewer hands. It's being concentrated in fewer and fewer individuals and the people who really need the help in this society aren't getting the help that they need," according to Coleman.

Green Party candidate Elizabeth Dickinson says she's in the race because the city needs a more progressive voice in City Hall. Dickinson spoke of her efforts in the organization Clean Energy Now and her support for universal health care and other basic human rights. She says, if elected, her office would welcome all points of view.

"There are a lot of people from a lot of neighborhoods across the city who feel like they've been shut out from decision making in City Hall," she said. "They feel, especially around development issues, that anytime big developers come in, they've been given a free slate to do whatever they want even if there have been community plans that they have been directed to pay attention to."

While the debate was basically civil, Coleman did criticize Kelly for his relationships with officials in the Republican Party. He says Kelly betrayed the party by endorsing George Bush for president last year and questions Kelly's relationships with Sen. Norm Coleman and Gov. Pawlenty, both Republicans. Chris Coleman says St. Paul needs a mayor who will stand up for the city when there's proposed budget cuts on the state and federal level.

"We've got to fight," Coleman said. "We saw what a difference it makes when Larry Pogemiller, a senator from Minneapolis, fought harder for the city of St. Paul than our mayor did up at the Legislature. He got us $7.5 million back in local government aid and but for that increase our city would be in terrible condition right now."

But Kelly says his relationships with Pawlenty and others at the state Capitol have actually helped the city. Kelly says he lobbied the governor and others to increase the amount of state money for public schools.

"Having a conversation with those folks, I think made a difference in increasing from 2.5 percent, which was originally proposed per year to ending up with a four percent increase for our schools each of the two school years," Kelly responded.

On the issue of affordable housing, Kelly said the city will have added one thousand affordable housing units since he first took office. He also says he's working to bring a Target store and a higher end grocery store to downtown St. Paul. Both Coleman and Dickinson say Kelly needs to focus more on filling in the empty office spaces throughout the city.

For her part, Dickinson says any business that gets a city tax break should be held to a higher standard. She wants those businesses to pay their employees more money.

"If there's significant subsidies going to corporations that we should expect those corporations to step up to the plate and pay their folks a living wage and not just the minimum wage," she said.

All three candidates say they'll continue to push their issues until the September 13 primary. The top two vote getters in the non-partisan primary will move on to the November general election.