Mayor Carter wants fewer cops, more political advisors

Covid-19 and the policy response to it are ravaging state and local budgets. On the revenue side, businesses close and workers are laid off. On the spending side, welfare spending increases. In May, St. Paul forecast a $19 million to $34 million budget deficit in 2021. This problem has been compounded by the $82 million of damage done to the city by the riots which followed George Floyd’s death in police custody on Memorial Day.

Fewer cops…

As the Pioneer Press reported recently, hard choices are already being made:

Mayor Melvin Carter has asked Police Chief Todd Axtell to prepare to cut $9.2 million in spending from St. Paul’s police department as the city looks to offset the “significant” damage the coronavirus pandemic has done to the city’s budget.

Axtell told his staff about the request in an email circulated Friday, noting that while he understands the tough times facing the city he is nonetheless disappointed in the mayor’s request.

“I know this is a hit to our collective soul, especially given the crime trends we’re seeing, the ever-increasing calls for service and the needs of the city. I shared with the Mayor my disappointment and urged him to reconsider,” Axtell wrote in the email, which a police spokesman shared Monday with the Pioneer Press.

Reaching the target would undoubtedly mean cuts to both sworn and civilian positions “at all ranks,” Axtell continued.

To the end of July, St. Paul had seen 19 homicides in 2020. That is up 46% over the same period last year, itself a record breaker. As Figure 1 shows, in those first seven months alone, St. Paul saw as many homicides as in all of 2016 and 2010, and more than in the entirety of six of the previous ten years.

Figure 1: Homicides in Saint Paul

Source: City of Saint Paul

The Pioneer Press went on:

The dollar figure may be large, but it amounts to the same percentage that departments citywide have been asked to explore eliminating given the current financial realities facing cities across the country, Carter said Monday afternoon.

But spending cuts should only be equally shared among departments if those departments are equally important. This is not the case. Maintaining law and order, safeguarding people’s persons and property, is a key function of government: it is arguably the key function of government. A government which fails to fulfill that function isn’t worth continuing with. And, as the numbers above show, St. Paul’s hard pressed police are struggling to keep a lid on things as it is.

…more political directors

But, while St. Paul might be getting fewer police officers for its taxes, it can look forward to a newly hired political director. As the Star Tribune reported recently:

Mayor Melvin Carter’s administration has hired a former union organizer to fill a new political director role, adding a six-figure position at a time when the city is staring down a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.

Jon Grebner, a former political organizer at AFSCME Council 5, officially started the political director job April 6.

Two days later, then-interim Finance Director John McCarthy told the City Council that his department was telling others “to hold off on nonessential spending and hiring because of what we know about our financial outlook right now.”

There was no public announcement of the hire at the time or months later, when the mayor’s office issued a news release to announce three director-level appointments.

According to the city, Grebner earns $53 an hour, or about $110,000 a year. He could not be reached for comment.

What is the point of this hire?

When Grebner started his job, Tincher said, she immediately assigned him to the Emergency Operations Center to work on communications. Council members said he has served as a liaison between the mayor’s office and the council on issues ranging from reopening restaurants for patio service to the recently approved tenant protection ordinance.

“In the midst of a pandemic … having people who have the ability to communicate on behalf of the mayor with trust is a really important thing, not just to the council but to the entire city,” said Council Member Chris Tolbert.

So, while St. Paulites can do without cops, they cannot, apparently, do without the Mayor’s opinion. Some choices are harder than others.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.