MARISA AGHA, Pioneer Press
December 13, 2002

The showdown over Roseville's proposed 2003 budget will come Monday night. Just what will happen is anyone's guess.

Most council observers agree it won't be pretty.

The question for taxpayers boils down to this: How much of a decrease do you want to see on your tax bill? Eight dollars? Sixteen dollars? That's the difference between two city staff proposals for the owner of a $175,000 home.

Many larger suburbs, including Maplewood, Woodbury and Eagan, are poised to raise their tax levies, if only slightly. But in Roseville, a council majority is pushing hard for more tax cuts.

After a lengthy, heated debate Monday night, it was clear that three council members want a lower levy than the staff's $9 million proposal -- a 1.6 percent increase over last year's levy.

City staff and two council members say the initial proposed levy will maintain current services and staff while still allowing for lower taxes on the city's portion of the tax bill. Heeding a majority of council members this week, staff went back to the drawing board to cut about $147,000 more out of the levy -- a move that would mean no increase over this year's levy.

"We're not recommending these decreases," Finance Director Chris Miller said Thursday. "This is our recommendation as to the best approach to maintaining services at their current levels, but we're not recommending them."

Those suggestions include cutting $100,000 from the contingency fund, used for unforeseen items like the recent mold-cleanup project at Fire Station No. 1 or a legal expense like Mayor John Kysylyczyn's criminal defense (an expense that hinges on the case's outcome); eliminating a new police officer position -- a $43,000 expense most of the council requested earlier this year; and dropping a $4,000 donation to the Roseville Ambassador Foundation, which the council approved earlier this year. About $65,000 would remain in the contingency fund, Miller said.

"We've tried to take a principled approach to it," Miller said. "It just didn't seem right to sacrifice existing programs for the benefit of new ones."

The city has not proposed any staff layoffs. There is no funding in 2003, however, for an assistant city manager or deputy police chief -- longtime jobs in the city that were not filled this year. About $35 million also would remain in city reserves, a figure that some council members argue is too high. The reserves are roughly equal to the city's annual budget.

Council Member Tom Kough, typically the council's swing vote, was adamant Thursday that he wants to add a new police officer and that $147,000 can still come out of the levy. "My feelings are we've got excess money in there and I'm not going to overtax people," Kough said.

Kough's proposed cuts are a moratorium on pathway construction ($50,000), lowering the city employee cost-of-living salary increase from 3 percent to 2 percent ($40,000), eliminating outside legal fees ($53,000) and possibly delaying the replacement of some police cars.

"It's to put us in a good position for next year," Kough said, noting that taxpayers will see the impact of an approved referendum for renovations to the public works and police facilities on bills a year from now.

Council members Craig Klausing and Dean Maschka have supported the staff's initial proposal. They maintain that holding off on projects or dipping into reserves can hurt in the long term. Klausing said he has "very serious concerns" about lowering the cost of living increase for staff.

"We're in competition with similar cities," Klausing said. "To cut that back means losing people."

Council Member Greg Schroeder at this week's council meeting said he wants to cut about $290,000 from the levy, while Kysylyczyn wants a reduction of about $425,000. Throughout the budget-planning process, Kysylyczyn, who has never voted in favor of a proposed city budget during his term, has asserted that the city has plenty of reserves and is "bamboozling" taxpayers.

"Certainly, if government is getting an increase three times the rate of inflation, we're going to be eating caviar and wine," Kysylyczyn said at Monday's council meeting.

Kysylyczyn has said it's the staff's job, not his, to propose specific cuts, and he says that's consistent with past council practice.

The city must submit the final approved budget to county and state officials by Dec. 31.

Marisa Agha, who covers north suburban Ramsey County, can be reached at magha@pioneer or (651) 228-2109.

2002 St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.