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St. Paul, Minn. — Raising taxes in an election year isn't usually considered a winning strategy. But that's exactly what incumbent St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly is proposing.
"I could have balanced the budget without raising property taxes," Kelly says. "But after talking to our police chief, our fire chief, the state gang strike force, and also (Homeland Security) Secretary Chertoff, it was my conclusion that we needed to raise property taxes in a modest level."
Kelly's proposal would raise the city's levy by 3 percent, breaking a 12-year streak of flat property taxes. He says the money would be used to pay for more police officers and firefighters.
Kelly has been attacked for his proposal -- not by taxpayers, but by those who want his job.
DFL-endorsed candidate Chris Coleman criticizes Kelly for a reduction in police officers and an increase in violent crime over the past six months. He calls Kelly's tax increase too little, too late.
"There's no long term vision," says Coleman. "[Kelly's]approach has been a Bandaid approach. Let's slap things together. Let's get some political headlines out of it. Let's get through this election cycle and then we'll maybe deal with the actual issue. I think that's wrongheaded."
Despite his criticism, Coleman says he supports Kelly's proposal to increase taxes. Coleman says he would also support further levy increases for schools and public safety.
Green Party candidate Elizabeth Dickinson supports Kelly's tax hike, too. She says if she becomes mayor, she would consider a citywide sales tax, but would make sure there was a consensus in favor of it.
"I think all options have to be on the table," says Dickinson. "I think that I'd want to sit down with the city council, sit down with business leaders. I would want to get input from folks all over the city before I commit to a specific amount for raising any kind of taxes."
Both Coleman and Dickinson say in addition to public safety, the city must spend more money on parks and recreation. They fault Kelly for waiting so long to increase property taxes. And, they both consider Kelly's 3 percent increase merely keeping up with inflation.
Kelly defends his tax increase as "sufficient," and acceptable for property owners who have not seen a city tax increase since 1993.
"I see these two opponents as engaging in a bidding war to pick the pockets of the St. Paul property taxpayers," says Kelly. "And that's what happened before, 10 or 12 years ago, and that's what will happen again if either one of these folks are elected."
Kelly's approach to paying for city services has been to charge property owners right-of-way fees. That means instead of paying for services through taxes, they pay fees for things like snowplowing, street-sweeping, street lights, and trees.
Kelly says it's the best solution, because of all the tax- exempt properties in the Capital City. Also, Kelly says, the city had to find revenue after losing $56 million in Local Government Aid from the state in recent years.
Kelly rival Chris Coleman says he would keep the right-of-way fee system instituted by Kelly. But he says he would make the school district exempt.
Dickinson says she, too, would keep the fee-for-services system. But, she also has another proposal to raise money for the city.
Dickinson says she would negotiate another $1 million to $2 million from the city's franchise fee agreement with Xcel Energy. She says the cost would be passed on to consumers, but she says that could be offset by energy conservation.
There are eight candidates running for mayor in St. Paul. The top two candidates in the Sept. 13 primary will move on to compete in the city's general election in November.