Mar 23, 2023 - News

St. Paul panel recommends property tax hike to pay for preschool for low-income families

Illustration of a wooden bead and wire child's play set with a dollar sign created from the twisting wire

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

A proposal to raise St. Paul property taxes to cover the cost of preschool for kids in low-income families is back in the city council's hands.

Driving the news: An advisory committee presented a report to the council Wednesday recommending the creation of a citywide funding source "dedicated to early learning" for Saint Paul children 5 and under.

  • Families who make less than 185% of the federal poverty level — about $51,000 for a family of four— would pay nothing to attend programs run through local schools, child care centers or in-home providers, per the recommendations.

Catch up fast: A coalition of providers, advocates and lawmakers fell short last year in their effort to put a measure on the November ballot asking voters to cover the cost of preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.

  • The city council responded by creating the task force to look into the issue.

State of play: The average cost of preschool in the metro ranges from $9,000 to $15,000 a year, depending on the type of provider, per ChildCare Aware Minnesota.

  • Families who need help can turn to a number of existing programs, including Head Start and state child care assistance grants, and some St. Paul Public Schools offer free, full-day pre-kindergarten classes for about 1,000 4- and 5-year-olds.
  • But demand for existing programs and assistance exceeds availability. An estimated 5,000 children are on a waitlist for one of those programs, per a presentation delivered to the council.

What they're saying: Maria Snider, a child care provider who chairs the coalition advocating for the change, said that even with those programs, she encounters families struggling to afford care for their young kids on a weekly basis.

  • "[This program] can fill in and make sure that no family in St. Paul would be turned away from the child care provider because they weren't able to pay," she said.

Of note: The report released this week didn't recommend a dollar amount for the tax increase. But last year’s proposal called for generating $2.6 million — about $20 a year for the average homeowner — in the first year.

  • Annual increases would be used to expand eligibility to cover full costs for more families. Ten years in, the total would hit $26 million, or $200 per homeowner.

The intrigue: If the council moves forward with the idea, St. Paul voters could face two tax hike measures in November.

  • Mayor Melvin Carter is also pitching a 1% increase to sales taxes to raise nearly $1 billion for roads and parks.

What we're watching: Whether local lawmakers — and voters — show an appetite for increasing property taxes even more following this year's big hike.

  • Several council members suggested Wednesday funding proposals at the legislature could help fill the gap, while others said the needs merit urgent action.
  • A Carter spokesperson told Axios that while the mayor appreciates the recommendations, he is "laser focused" on his sales tax measure.

What's next: The council has until the summer to fill in the details and take a vote in time to put the measure on the November ballot.


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