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City spending at issue in St. Paul mayor's race

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Former St. Paul Police Chief William Finney and former presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.) joined candidate Chris Coleman at a campaign event with firefighters (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
With a little over a week to go before the St. Paul mayoral election, incumbent Randy Kelly has been challenging rival Chris Coleman to specify how much he would increase city spending if elected. Surveys indicate Kelly is trailing Coleman by a wide margin. A new poll conducted for the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs shows Kelly trailing Coleman by 35 points. With time running out in the campaign, the issue of funding for the fire department has become a flashpoint as the candidates battle over taxes and spending in the city.

St. Paul, Minn. — St. Paul's firefighters are not happy. They say their morale is low, safety is compromised, and response times are growing.

Union president Pat Flanagan says firefighters are worn out, and he blames it all on current mayor Randy Kelly.

"He has done nothing but show contempt for the firefighters," Flanagan says. "Because we stood up to him two years ago. This is the kind of vindictive style of leadership we have to get away from."

Flanagan says the union fought Kelly to preserve an engine company. Flanagan says 14 firefighter positions remain unfilled, and, he says overall, the department is about 40 firefighters short of what it needs. He says federal safety standards require that each fire truck have four firefighters on it. But tight budgets mean at least three fire trucks go with less than four.

Flanagan's list goes on and on.

He and other firefighters detailed their dissatisfaction at a campaign event for mayoral challenger Chris Coleman on Monday. Flanagan says he believes Coleman will come through for firefighters if the former City Council member is elected.

"Chris Coleman has a record of supporting firefighters and public safety," Flanagan says. "About eight months ago myself and Chris ate breakfast together, and he looked me in the eye and told me he would support us and he'd be there for us. I believed it then, I believe it now, and I believe it will be in the future."

Both the firefighters and Coleman backed Kelly four years ago. But Coleman, who quit the City Council in 2003, now says Kelly hasn't provided firefighters the support they need.

"They don't feel they're respected by this mayor," Coleman says. "The mayor doesn't appreciate the risks that they put themselves through."

Coleman says if he's elected, he'll figure out a way to keep fire stations open and give the firefighters the resources they need to do their jobs.

For his part, Mayor Kelly has been hammering Coleman to put a dollar amount on his promises. Kelly takes every opportunity publicly and in campaign literature, to paint Coleman as a tax and spender who will move the city into the dark days of double-digit property tax increases.

In a recent debate on KSTP-TV, Kelly pressed Coleman to say how much he would raise taxes in St. Paul.

"Is it 10 percent? Is it 20 percent? Is it 30 percent?" Kelly asked. "Just stop me when I'm getting there. Would you please answer the question? It's not that hard of a question, Chris."

Kelly said by his calculations, Coleman would have to come up with an additional $2 million to $3 million to restore the 14 firefighter positions and the engine company that closed earlier this year.

"I'm suggesting to the citizens of St. Paul that he isn't being honest with them about what he is going to spend and how much he's going to tax the citizens of St. Paul," Kelly said.

During the debate, Kelly asked Coleman several times how much his proposals would cost. Each time Coleman refused to specify. He says his plan to put more firefighters on the street and fund city services starts with working with the St. Paul legislative delegation to restore local government aid from the state.

"The problem, mayor," says Coleman, "is that you've spent 30-plus years raising taxes. And so you view things from only two perspectives: either you raise taxes or you do nothing. I think there's a third way, and it's called leadership; bringing people together to make a significant difference in the lives of our community."

Throughout his campaign, Coleman has avoided putting specific dollar amounts on his proposals. He has said he would agree to raise taxes for only two things: schools and public safety. But he has also said raising property taxes would be a last resort.

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