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In West St. Paul municipal election this year there is a race in each ward for City Council and a mayor’s race. We’ve asked the candidates a series of questions to see where they stand on the issues. We’ll share one question and the responses at a time leading up to the election. See our full details on where and how to vote in West St. Paul.
West St. Paul had budget challenges before the pandemic. What do you think the city should do to make the most of our limited resources?
We posed this question to all candidates (with one exception, noted below). Here are their responses:
Candidates for Mayor
Kimetha “KaeJae” Johnson
1) We need to focus on our small business community especially those hardest hit by the pandemic to ensure they can continue to survive while we create space for new small businesses that will produce revenue to increase our resources and decrease our debt.
2) We should also tap into the connection and service that are presented to us by our residents and community groups to assist in areas that might reduce cost.
One of the reasons I’m running for mayor is that West St.Paul has underused or simply missed the opportunity to access the resources that can come out of a deeply connected community.
We have our budget under control. We have not compromised our financial plan due to the impacts from COVID-19. With the help from state relief funding, we have positioned ourselves to come out of this with very little negative impact on our annual operations. We will continue to watch our spending, as we know this is not over.
Candidates for City Council Ward 1
The city has done a good job of focusing on what priorities staff can handle and limiting their spending during this extremely difficult time. Until we know what, if any, federal and state spending decisions occur, we may need to get creative in the community to see how we can help the city.
For example, great contributions are being made by residents to organize park clean up events, host local food drives, and create neighborhood groups. Thank you to our neighbors, volunteers and organizations for all of your contributions. Another option is to determine where WSP can partner with other local cities to share programs, resources and costs, similar to other joint programs we have in place.
Long term, I anticipate that our tax base growth from business development, sales tax collection and better local government funding will help us invest in infrastructure improvements while pursuing debt retirement without having to increase property tax rates.
We are very fortunate to have a city manager and staff that have an excellent grasp on our budget and have made great improvements in the last few years. Our adopted financial management plan must guide our decisions for years to come. When I started on the Council in 2017, our city budget was in tough shape with a lot of debt and low cash reserves. We have made a lot of progress toward shoring up our cash accounts and reducing our debt to ensure the credit rating of the city remains stable and improves in the future. This is key to ensure we can get the best interest rates on future infrastructure project needs. My biggest priority will be to ensure we stick with our plan that we know will benefit the city into the future. When we look to our budget to years 2024/2025, it looks very positive right now. As council members it is our job to work with our staff to continue that trend.
Candidates for City Council Ward 2
See my previous response under economic development—it’s all there.
The three key issues that I hope to prioritize in West St. Paul are inclusion, accessibility, and livability. Making the most of our budget starts with engaging our community to understand broadly what it would look like to address those needs for different people and then making sure our budget reflects that.
Indeed, nearly every day this summer, I asked community members: what would inclusion, accessibility, and livability look like for you? I heard a number of recurring themes: safety, walkability and bikeability, public gathering and recreational spaces, diversified eating and shopping establishments, and resources for differently-abled bodies.
West St. Paul is working to improve walkability and bikeability right now including connecting the River-to-River Greenway under Robert Street (which, notably, was paid for with federal, state, and county grants) and developing new sidewalks. Still, many community members—especially parents and people with mobility limitations—do not feel safe walking in our city because of our incomplete sidewalks. We should treat our sidewalks not as a matter of convenience but as a city-wide accessibility and inclusion issue. Additionally, we need to improve street lights on thoroughfares so residents feel safe and seen when they are walking after dark.
I have also heard from community members that we need more public gathering and recreational spaces. Many of our older residents, who have been home-bound for months, are particularly struggling with the lack of connection through this pandemic, and this year we lost some gathering places of significance to them—namely, the YMCA, Baker’s Square, and Perkins. Younger neighbors have expressed interest in access to different kinds of recreational activities, for example, a skate park. Although we have great parks in West St. Paul, we do not have a single accessible playground for our differently-abled kids. And perhaps most of all, I have heard from neighbors that we need a community center in West St. Paul. Public spaces go a long way in making our community more livable, and, although we are still deeply immersed in it, now is really the time for us to think about how we will reconnect with our neighbors on the other side of this pandemic.
Of course, all of these improvements and resources cost money. There are two things that I would like us to focus on to improve available funding to pay for resources that support inclusion, accessibility, and livability. First, I will use tools like tax-increment financing cautiously and with full input from our community so that we are attracting businesses and organizations that measurably improve our city. Second, I will work with our representatives in the State Legislature—Representative Rick Hansen and Senator Matt Klein—to bring local government aid back to the level at which it was funded before Governor Tim Pawlenty, and to secure funding for important resources—like a community center—that the state has supported in other cities.
Candidates for City Council Ward 3
I have been impressed with the ways the city has streamlined and prioritized since creating a debt reduction plan and also in preserving resources around the pandemic and pandemic-related costs. We are now on track to retire Robert Street debt a year earlier than planned, and this remains a priority for the council. After being appointed to the council, one of the first big actions I took was testifying on behalf of the city to the Minnesota Senate Tax Committee in support of our local option sales tax that was approved by our voters. Lots of cities make the hurdle of being approved by their citizens but then don’t make it through the legislature. We were successful in our efforts and the local option sales tax will allow us to pay for improvements to our roads in a pay-as-you go model. We’ve made a plan for the coming years that is within our budget and we’ll be able to make a lot of headway on road repairs, sidewalk creation, and maintenance of parks and infrastructure, all within our tightened resources. We are always looking at partnerships and grants to enhance city services and amenities as well—consider things like the Art Park and the power of determined volunteers and grant resources. I look forward to finding creative ways and outside resources to keep building a vibrant community that citizens are looking for.
(no campaign site)
[Per a request from David Meisinger in 2018 threatening to report me to the police for harassment if I ever contact him again, I did not ask Meisinger this question and therefore have no response to share.]
Vote on November 3
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. The West St. Paul city website has details on where and how to vote. You can also vote early with an absentee ballot, either by mail or by stopping at the Dakota County offices. See our full details on where and how to vote in West St. Paul.
Thank you to the candidates for taking the time to respond to my questions.
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