Minneapolis tax official sues Mayor Betsy Hodges for late budget proposal

Hodges cited "major public safety incidents," which necessitated her "abbreviated budget." Carol Becker's response has been to sue Hodges for failing to do what is arguably her most important mayoral job duty.

Hodges cited "major public safety incidents," which necessitated her "abbreviated budget." Carol Becker's response has been to sue Hodges for failing to do what is arguably her most important mayoral job duty.

Under the city charter, the mayor of Minneapolis is required to submit a recommended budget by August 15.

The thick document the mayor presents to the city council is supposed to include down-to-the-dollar details of how much money would be spent on affordable housing, health department inspections, and the number of police officers patrolling the streets of the City of Lakes, among other expenditures.

Instead, Mayor Betsy Hodges, citing "major public safety incidents in recent weeks," last week submitted an eight-page "abbreviated budget summary."

The skeletal document included a proposal that property owners shoulder more of the budget burden, raising aggregate property taxes to $332 million from the current budget's $314 million, a 5.5 percent bump which Hodges said would help pay for city parks improvements. 

According to a statement from the mayor's office, Hodges plans on "giving her full budget address" on Sept. 12. That date would giving taxpayers 24 hours to read the leviathan proposal (for reference, the current city budget runs to 585 pages) before being able to voice concerns during the public hearing, scheduled for the following day. 

Hodges blamed the tardiness on two things: Minneapolis Police Officer Mohamed Noor's fatal shooting of resident Justine Damond and the explosion at Minnehaha Academy, which claimed two lives.

The incidents, her statement read, have "demanded considerable attention from Mayor Hodges, City Council Members, and senior City staff."

"Delivering the budget address at a later date in response to urgent public-safety incidents is consistent with recent past practice," it continued, noting how former Mayor R.T. Rybak had thrice delayed producing budgets by the deadline. Rybak's three delays came in after the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007, after the north Minneapolis tornado of 2009, and following the state government shutdown of 2011. 

Carol Becker, one of two elected members of the Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation, the panel that holds public hearings about setting maximum tax levies and serves as an internal audit for city finances, argues Hodges' comparison is nonsense, singling out the comparison to the I-35 collapse.

"We had dozens of people dead," says Becker. "We had a huge economic disruption in the city because we disrupted one of our most core transportation infrastructure pieces. "

The shooting of a civilian by a police officer "just wasn't the same," says Becker, who doesn't "find any of [Hodges'] arguments compelling. She's had months to work on this."

On Friday afternoon, Becker turned her criticism into a lawsuit filed in Hennepin County court. Becker charges that Hodges' failure to submit a budget constitutes a dereliction of duty.  

Becker's suit claims the abbreviated budget "summary" robs taxpayers of crucial specifics, and says giving residents only one day to learn the full details of the mayor's recommendations is woefully insufficient. Citizens can't ask their mayor or city council member about a specific budget item if it does not yet exist in written form. 

"You go through that little eight-page document and you tell me how you can answer any [budget] questions," Becker says. "That little fig leaf you have there, you can't answer any of them."

Becker says governing with such a lack of transparency creates "a chilling effect on democracy, and people can't organize and they can't petition their government." By keeping her budget secret until the last moment, Hodges would effectively "stunt debate and discussion," Becker says.

A court hearing is scheduled for Friday, August 25. Becker intends to force Hodges to produce a complete budget recommendation within seven days from that date. 

Hodges spokesperson Eric Fought declined comment, referring instead to the mayor's Tuesday statement. 

I think people should be able to participate in their government," says Becker, "and you can't do that without informatio --  even more so now than ever, considering what's happening at the federal level. The rules and processes, and fair play, have to be protected. You can't just say, 'I'm too busy. I'm not going to allow the people the time to weigh in on this.'"