MINNEAPOLIS -- A Hennepin County judge is pondering whether Mayor Betsy Hodges breached the city charter by delaying release of her detailed budget plan.
The Minneapolis City Charter requires a budget blueprint by August 15, and that's normally when Mayor Hodges would issue her full-fledged spending proposal. But Hodges this year released a short outline on that date, pledging the detailed version on September 12 when she'll deliver her annual budget address.
Hodges cited a series of tragic events as the cause of the delay, including the July 15 officer-involved shooting death of Justine Damond, and the August 2 explosion at Minnehaha Academy, which claimed two lives.
Editor's Note: Six days after this story appeared, Judge Mary Vasaly ruled in favor of Mayor Hodges, saying the city charter doesn't require a full budget book by Aug. 15.
Carol Becker took the mayor to court in an effort to compel Hodges to release the budget sooner, or in the alternative be fined $250 per day for missing the Aug. 15 deadline.
"Is this a budget? Or is this a budget?" Bender asked Hennepin County District Judge Mary Vasaly at a hearing Friday, as she held up a copy of Hodges' detailed 2017 budget booklet in one hand and Hodges' eight-page outline for 2018 in the other hand.
Becker petitioned the court in her capacity as a Minneapolis resident and taxpayer, but she's no novice on city budgets. She teaches public finance at Hamline University and at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and she worked on finances for former mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.
Becker's also a citizen member of the Minneapolis Board of Estimate and Taxation, which each year sets the maximum property tax levy. Becker told the judge that the board, which Mayor Hodges is also part of, must set the property tax levy cap by September 30.
To that end the board has scheduled a public hearing at City Hall on Sept. 13, one day after Hodges releases the detailed version of her budget.
"That’s not okay," Becker said. "People should have more than one day to read the budget, understand the budget, ask questions."
Property tax revenues are a traditionally a significant part of the city's revenues, accounting for one-fourth to one-third of the budget depending on a variety of factors including state aid levels and the flow of money generated by fees.
Assistant City Attorney Sarah McLaren, appearing at Friday's court hearing on behalf of the City of Minneapolis and Mayor Hodges, pointed out that the City Council will have final say over the budget, and will hold hearings about it between now and December.
The Mayor's budget plan, McLaren noted, is a set of recommendations that council members and accept or reject. She also questioned whether Becker has met the legal requirements to prompt intervention by the court.
She said to carry the day Becker would need to prove the Mayor failed to perform her duties, and that Becker suffered individualized injuries because of it and that there are no other legal remedies.
McLaren also argued that the Mayor's August 15 budget statement met the spirit of the Minneapolis City Charter.
"The level of detail Ms. Becker is seeking here is not required by the City Charter. This petition is asking for information that has never been provided by August 15 in previous years."
Becker conceded that the City Council sets the budget, but reminded the judge the council must live by the property tax levy caps set by the Board of Estimate and Taxation in September.
McLaren asked the judge to consider that Becker may have political motivations for creating legal issues for Mayor Hodges, who is campaigning for a second term.
After the hearing Becker denied any such hidden agenda, and said she hasn't yet endorsed a candidate -- including City Council Member Jacob Frey, one of Hodges' chief rivals in the mayoral race.
Judge Vasaly said she'd take the case under advisement and issue a ruling in the near future.