St. Paulƒ?TMs new mayor: Chris Coleman chats about smoking, trains and fiscal woes

By Eliot Brown

Campaigning against the unpopular incumbent Randy Kelly, Chris Coleman won a resounding victory in November to become the new mayor of St. Paul. Like cities around the country, St. Paul is facing rising internal costs along with decreased aid from the state and federal levels, creating enormous budget gaps with no easy solutions. Now in his fourth month in office, Coleman sat down with The Mac Weekly to discuss his plan for Minnesota’s capital city.
Mac Weekly: A big part of your campaign in the fall was “I’m not the guy who supported George Bush.” Now that that guy, Randy Kelly, is out of the picture, what have been the early emphases of your tenure?
Chris Coleman: The two main focuses of our administration have been light rail in the central corridor and the education “second shift” program.

The full smoking ban you just signed off on just went into effect—what have you heard from residents?
I think people are thrilled with it, by and large. There are some vocal opponents to it, but, anecdotally, people are still going out to bars.

What have the bar owners been saying?
They’re still throwing rocks—there’s going to be an adjustment period, and some restaurants and bars might have to change how they do business but no one will go out of business because of the smoking ban. They may choose not to adjust and to deal with the new reality and that may cost them business in the long run.

A lot of people say a statewide ban would be more fair. Under the current city-by-city system, many smokers can take their business right to Roseville or any town around Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Well, if the number-one thing that matters to you is whether you can smoke in a bar, then you might go somewhere else. A statewide ban would be better—the 14th state just went smoke-free—Utah—this is part of a national trend … people understand you can’t have that kind of poison sitting in a restaurant or a bar and have people breathing it in all day. So it will happen, there’s just a period of adjustment.
Councilmember Jay Benanav has proposed a $25 per-student fee for colleges and universities in the city. Where do you stand on this matter?
I don’t think that’s going to end up going anywhere. For one thing, the state house just voted unanimously to limit cities’ authorities to even do that so I think you get more by working with colleges. St. Paul has this tremendous asset with all the universities and colleges that are in the city so there are other ways to work with them.
Do you think that as finances get tight, you’ll ask the city colleges and universities to contribute money in some other way?
Well first of all, they have through fees and assessments … that will continue. But my sense is that we’re at the point where we’re maximizing our opportunities.
Homeowners have been seeing big jumps in their property tax bills recently … Is this a trend that’s going to continue?
Well, the city raised its proportion of the property taxes for the first time in 12 years last year—raised it three percent—but property taxes have kept on going up because of shifts from state and federal government to the local level … property taxes will go up, but the question is how do we moderate that?
What’s the answer?
Well, we’re facing a $15 to $20 million deficit next year. If I raise the property taxes 10 percent, that’s only $6.5 million of revenue. So, we’ve got to be more creative on how we solve that deficit because you can’t raise property taxes 15, 20 percent—it’ll chase too many homeowners out. I think there are more equitable, fair ways to raise revenue for municipalities—for cities. That was the whole concept behind local government aid—so it wasn’t relying on property taxes, but sales taxes, income taxes; those sorts of things. But as the state shifted and reduced their aid to the City of St. Paul, it forces those decisions on a local level, and our only options are property taxes, which is a bad way to raise money.
The state’s passing down a fair amount of costs; costs are rising—
We’ve lost 18 percent of state and federal assistance since 2003, so that’s a pretty significant chunk to make up with property taxes.

Assuming that leadership doesn’t really change in the next couple of years from the state and federal government, what are you going to do?
I think the problem with the city is for the last four years, it was kinda governed with the hope that that would shift at the state and federal level, and all of a sudden we would get the restoration of those cuts that we faced, and the reality is I don’t think that’s going to happen. We’ve got to figure out new ways to do things, new ways to deliver services, better partnerships with foundations, better partnerships with the business community—it’s a structural reality. The answer is not to just pretend like it doesn’t exist.
So is there any reason why we shouldn’t be pessimistic about St. Paul’s financial system in the next few years?
I think we should be really optimistic…there are a tremendous number out in the community that want to help us do the kinds of things that we need to do.

In regard to the question of attracting businesses, is it especially hard with a competitor across the river—Minneapolis?
The answer to that is to not have it be viewed as a competitor but to be viewed as a partner. That’s one of the reasons why [Minneapolis] Mayor Rybak and I have worked so hard together over the last couple of months.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have always had a rivalry of sorts, extending back to the 19th century when St. Paul counted dead people in the census in order to beat out Minneapolis in population—
We are two different cities. From an outsider’s perspective, people may not understand that, but we are culturally different cities. But that’s O.K.—this is not about ignoring our history or pretending like there are no differences, but it’s about being smarter, being better partners. The best example of that is the fact that Minneapolis and Mayor Rybak have declared the central corridor [light rail] as their number one regional priority. That is huge.

Our metro area is unique in that it practices tax base sharing, where money from the wealthy suburbs goes to the less wealthy suburbs and cities, including St. Paul. Do you support this redistribution program?
We’re actually starting to lose out on that deal…Central cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul have a disproportionate share of infrastructure needs, social care needs; policing needs than do suburbs. … North Oaks doesn’t have a homelessness problem, and yet as a region we do. You can’t just say that’s St. Paul’s problem.