St. Cloud’s New Mayor Cuts Spending, Lowers Tax Levy

Published February 1, 2006

St. Cloud, Minnesota Mayor Dave Kleis had been on the job less than two weeks when he was presented with a budget he played no part in putting together.

That did not stop him from finding more than $100,000 in savings and reducing the city’s property tax levy in the budget the city council approved in December, handing St. Cloud taxpayers an early Christmas present.

Kleis had spent 11 years as a Republican member of the Minnesota State Senate before resigning his seat last fall to run for mayor of central Minnesota’s largest city. He campaigned on promises to hold city spending to inflation and population growth and to increase St. Cloud’s commitment to public safety.

The promises apparently resonated with citizens, as Kleis defeated incumbent mayor John Ellenbecker on November 8. Ellenbecker lost five of the city’s six wards despite having the support of labor unions, whose members went door-to-door on his behalf. Kleis’s victory made him the first challenger in 25 years to unseat an incumbent St. Cloud mayor.

Critics of tax and expenditure limitations like the one Kleis promised often argue against such constraints, but Kleis quickly found places in the city’s budget that would allow him to honor his campaign pledges.

City Drops Lobbying Group

First, and most controversially, Kleis dropped St. Cloud’s membership in the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC), a regional lobbying group that represented 68 cities and towns outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. As a legislator, Kleis often had dealt with CGMC representatives who would lobby for increases in state government aid to cities, which Kleis said benefitted the coalition and the lobbyist at the expense of state and local taxpayers.

The larger League of Minnesota Cities represents all of the state’s municipalities, including St. Cloud, and provides insurance and legal support. The CGMC was providing a lobbying service that Kleis said he would be better able to staff at no cost to the city.

Some CGMC members fear St. Cloud’s withdrawal will hurt the organization’s clout.

Mayor Richard Carlbom of St. Joseph told the Associated Press for a December 5 article that appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Without St. Cloud participating, I don’t know where St. Joseph would be. I don’t know how we would get a voice.”

Property Tax Levy Drops

Kleis also cut from the budget a full-time administrative position for the fire department. And he recommended the Mayor’s Contingency Fund not receive its scheduled increase. The savings from these decisions helped give St. Cloud taxpayers their first tax levy reduction since 2002.

Kleis’s budget kept the city’s tax increase under the combined growth in population and price inflation, reduced the tax rate, and resulted in a total savings of $110,000.

A change to the city calendar also helped St. Cloud residents get a better handle on this year’s budget process. Minnesota law requires city and county governments to hold annual Truth in Taxation hearings that give residents the opportunity to question elected officials about their property tax levies. In the past, the proposed levy was voted on the same night as the hearing, leaving no room for reductions or increases and no chance for negotiations.

Kleis, who said his motto is “the more accountability, the better,” gave city council members and taxpayers a week to look over his numbers and further open up the budget process.

Continues Looking for Waste

Kleis is not stopping with these measures. He said he has long-term plans to improve the city’s entire budget process.

“I plan on implementing ‘zero-based’ budgeting for 2007 [a budget method where each city department will need to justify every dollar requested] and forming a volunteer committee on government efficiency to continually look for waste that can be eliminated,” Kleis said.

Also important to Kleis is getting citizens involved in the budget process throughout the entire year.

“Many people don’t realize there is also an assessment hearing in the spring,” Kleis said. “By the time citizens get to their fall [Truth in Taxation] hearing, it’s already too late.”

Mark Giga ([email protected]) is director of outreach at the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.