More cops, less housing for NRP?

Council nibbles at Pawlenty’s offer while approving 2005 budget

Efforts to rewrite the state law so Minneapolis neighborhood groups can spend more money on police and less on housing is quickly gathering momentum.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty told the Star Tribune Dec. 11 he would support a law change allowing the city to tap the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) to pay for more police services.

Bob Miller, NRP’s executive director, said he backs a law change — as long as neighborhoods continue to control spending decisions, not the city.

The issue surfaced during the City Council’s 2005 budget debate Dec. 13. The Council approved the budget 12-1. Increasing public safety spending was the main discussion topic.

NRP offered one option for councilmembers who said they "turned over every rock" for cop money. Council President Paul Ostrow (1st Ward) said several neighborhoods he represented would like to spend more of their NRP money on public safety, and that he supported a change in NRP law.

Current state NRP law says neighborhoods must spend 52.5 percent of the funds on housing and housing-related projects. In NRP Phase II, neighborhoods will have to spend 70 percent on housing, because of Phase I shortfalls. A state law change would reduce or eliminate the housing requirement so more could be spent on police.

The Council’s effort to scrape together money to hire a few officers was the conversation’s backdrop. Ways and Means Chair Barbara Johnson (4th Ward) offered a series of amendments that added back nine cops.

It won’t add nine new cops on the street. It means the city won’t have to cut nine cops next year. It came as a response to the squeeze of public and financial pressure.

A parade of business owners and residents went before the City Council’s Truth in Taxation hearing Dec. 10 asking for help reducing neighborhood crime.

Meanwhile, police spending has been hurt by federal "Clinton cop" cuts, state-aid cuts and pension debt payments. The city’s adopted five-year business plan continues police cuts.

In 2006, the Council forecasts cutting police department $2.7 million below its current service level, or approximately 2.5 percent. In 2007, police would get another $4.2 million cut from the service status quo, and in 2008 another $1.4 million.

Neighborhood groups are beginning to plan NRP Phase II. They have $41.7 million to spend, ranging from Kenwood ($85,600) to Whittier ($2.5 million).

Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) successfully passed an amendment that asked the Police Department to work with neighborhoods to develop police-service purchasing options.

NRP recently developed a similar menu of housing program options. Neighborhood groups do not have to use any of the housing programs, but it gives them choices.

Benson said some neighborhoods had concerns about earlier police buy-back programs because they got charged time and a half for officer time. Benson’s amendment states the buy-back programs would charge regular rates, but neighborhoods would have to commit to a multiyear program. That would give the Police Department a more predictable funding source.

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) noted that several of her more affluent neighborhoods, such as Kenwood, received very little NRP money and must now spend it on housing.

While Ostrow spoke favorably of an NRP law change, the Council took no action. Benson, who chairs the Council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, said after the meeting, the idea is worth discussing. "I would positively consider it," he said.

Miller said he supported giving NRP more flexibility.

"The concerns about policing and the availability of police resources are strong ones in neighborhoods and they have been issues for many years," he said. "If the city wishes to support removing the 52.5 percent requirement [for housing] so that we have more flexibility, I am very supportive of that."

He cautioned against giving neighborhoods specific police-spending targets, saying in three years the priority might be economic development. "The more restrictions you place on a program, what happens is the less flexibility you have to adapt to the changing environment," he said.

The vote

City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) was the lone no vote on the city budget, which passed almost unchanged from Mayor R.T. Rybak’s initial proposal. Niziolek said violent crime is on the rise, and the budget did not go far enough to increase spending on police.

Salary and benefits for one officer is approximately $75,000. One of Johnson’s amendments took $75,000 from the City Coordinator’s office for one more officer. Another amendment took $75,000 from Regulatory Services to fund another officer.

The most significant move came when the Council voted to use $5 million in one-time surplus to pay pension bonds early. That freed up $500,000 in annual debt payments, enough to hire seven officers.

Another Johnson amendment directed licensing staff to work with the City Attorney’s office on how to charge businesses more if they use more police services.

She said some businesses consume an inordinate amount of police services and might get 200 to 300 calls a year. The amendment passed 8-5, with some Councilmembers concerned that an added business license fee would double-tax businesses for a basic city service. Benson, Goodman, Ostrow, Don Samuels (3rd Ward) and Barret Lane (13th Ward) voted no.