Ward 2 city council forum: John Justen and Jim Probst

West St. Paul Ward 2 City Council: Fact Checking Jim Probst

We’ve had two West St. Paul city council ward 2 candidate forums in the race between John Justen and Jim Probst. In watching those forums, I’ve seen a few comments from Jim Probst that didn’t seem entirely accurate.

You can watch the forums yourself:

I’m thrilled we actually have these candidate forums. It’s great when candidates participate. The only downside is that candidates can say anything they want and nobody is checking up on them. So let’s do some fact checking.

[Update (Oct. 19, 2018): This post went live on Tuesday, Oct. 16. About an hour and a half later I got a response from Probst with the answers to the questions I sent him a week earlier. One of his answers didn’t have a clear explanation, so I asked for clarification the same day. I haven’t heard back yet, but Probst assured me on Wednesday at the Optimists’ Club forum that he would get me an answer.]

Property Tax Increases

In multiple places, Probst has said property taxes have gone up 10% each of the last three years:

  • “We’ve had three straight 10% increases in over three years.” (Town Square forum)
  • “Property taxes have gone up 30% in three years.” (Town Square meet the candidates)
  • In describing challenges facing the city, Probst listed “property taxes going up 10 percent each of the last three years,” as the South West Review characterized it.

Verdict: False.

Tax increases for the past three years are:

  • 2018: 10.9%
  • 2017: 6.33%
  • 2016: 4.77%

The 2019 numbers haven’t been finalized yet, so while they are in the 10% range (9.96%), the proposal is always a maximum and it’s usually revised downward. It would be disingenuous to talk of 2019 numbers as if they’re final.

(Source: City data and South West Review; 2018, 2017, 2016)

Now we should be clear: Property taxes are calculated with a complex formula using your property value compared to the property values across the city. Your property tax increases may not correspond to these numbers. Yours might go up more, or even go down. I’ve explored the complication of our property taxes before.

Probst’s Response (Updated Oct. 19):

“I spoke to staff at city hall and reviewed financials that are publically available. I realize there is a number of different ways to look at property taxes, and taxes generally. It’s complicated. I’ve seen your articles previously on this topic and thank you for that. There are actual levy increases that you note which is one way to think about this. I wanted to understand the increases in terms of actual real dollars for the average taxpayer in West St. Paul. So I asked staff at City Hall what the average tax increase is on the median homeowner factoring in everything. So, as you see on page 2 of this slide: https://wspmn.gov/DocumentCenter/View/2502/2018-Preliminary-Budget-and-Levy?bidId= They have a conclusion on a real dollars “tax increase” (their words). So using that analysis I wanted to get a sense of what the increases have been, on average, over the past 3 years, and a rough number for the median taxpayer is about 10%. I realize its more complicated and not a perfect way to discuss this topic, but I wanted to get a sense of the situation. Every budget has difficult decisions to make, and simply “keeping taxes low” is not why I am running for city council. We have a lot to do in West St. Paul. We need a balance, and my point is we have to keep in mind these increases and the impact it has on our residents, especially those older residents that want to stay in their homes but are on fixed incomes. If we can aggressively expand our commercial tax base, that will hopefully take pressure off our residential properties in terms of real dollar increases in the future.”

My Take:

This is the response I thought lacked a clear explanation and source, so I asked Probst for more details. Haven’t received those yet.

The link he includes is to the 2018 preliminary budget, not the final budget. It’s also not clear how he gets from the preliminary $108.62 tax increase in that document to a 10% increase. It also doesn’t address the previous two years.

Even if Probst comes up with a source for this 10% claim or shows his work, there’s a reason the city reports the numbers they do and why I quoted them. If you’re going to come up with an alternative number, you should be up front about that. (And frankly, I think it would help your case to explain that you’re using an alternate number and why.)

I still rate his claim false because he hasn’t proven otherwise, and best case I’d say it’s misleading.

Sales Tax

While Probst said he would respect the will of the voters regarding the proposed sales tax, he’s not a fan. He argued that the sales tax couldn’t be implemented very quickly: “We’re talking, on the good side of things, maybe two to three years from now.”

Verdict: False. If it is approved by voters in November, approved by the state legislature, and again by the city council, it could be implemented on January 1, 2020 (14 months).

(Source: West St. Paul city website)

Probst’s Response (Updated Oct. 19):

“Thank you for this question and the opportunity to clarify. My comment was based on the uncertainty of the legislature approving this sales tax, as it might not be approved in 2019. And, while best case it could be implemented as soon as Jan. 1, 2020, that may be longer depending on what the legislature does with it, and it takes time for the revenue to start coming in and evaluate if the projections and impact on businesses was correct. My point being is that in the meantime we look for alternatives like aggressive redevelopment on Robert Street and expanding our tax base. I think it is sound policy of the council to plan for the worst case while also pursuing all options.”

My Take:

While Probst is right that the sales tax, if approved by voters, may take longer to get through the state legislature (if it gets through at all), I still think his statement is wrong.

In my mind, “the good side of things” is the positive scenario, and that would be Jan. 1, 2020, not two to three years.

I stand by my ‘false’ claim.

Elderly Population

Probst said West St. Paul has “one of the oldest communities in the state of Minnesota,” referring to our elderly residents.

Verdict: Likely false. In Probst’s defense, “one of the oldest” is a fairly vague statement, but I don’t see proof that West St. Paul is among the oldest communities in the state. We seem to be close to the average.

An aging population is certainly a broader issue to consider and I’m not arguing we ignore seniors in West St. Paul. Other candidates have talked about the need to address our aging population and Probst raises a good point here. I’m just saying the rhetoric doesn’t seem to be accurate.

(Source: I had trouble finding a specific source, but the median age of West St. Paul was 39.7 in the 2010 census. The median age for Minnesota as a whole is 37.8. Checking a few other cities in a fairly random sampling it seems unlikely that West St. Paul is among the oldest: Mendota Heights: 47.5; Golden Valley: 45.7; Edina: 45.2; New Ulm: 41.4; Hibbing: 41; Stillwater: 40.)

Probst’s Response (Updated Oct. 19):

“The source of the data is from mncompass.org and in speaking to city staff, and other organizations like DARTS. You will see the percentage of our residents that are older than 65 is 16.3% which is much higher than many communities. South St. Paul, for example, is at 11.7%. We are fortunate to have many residents that have lived in West St. Paul for a long time that want to stay in West St. Paul. I believe our city should work to ensure those folks can stay in our community. The affordable housing projects recently approved by DARTS is a good example of that in action and I hope we continue to support those efforts.”

My Take:

According to MN Compass, West St. Paul is at 16.3% over 65 while Minnesota as a whole is at 15.26%. Every city I listed above as being older than West St. Paul is also older by this metric. Also note that Greater Minnesota is “greyer” than the metro. I see no proof that West St. Paul is among the oldest in the state.

I stand by my ‘false’ claim.

And let’s be clear: I support Probst’s position, I’m questioning his rhetoric.

Communication

During the Women of West St. Paul forum, Probst said, “I’m a big believer in getting messages out.”

Verdict: Maybe, but the evidence isn’t there.

Sources: Well, this isn’t so much a thing to fact check, but here’s what I’ve seen:

  • Probst is a candidate with no online presence. He has no campaign website or Facebook page. (He does have a personal Facebook page, but what’s publicly available is infrequently updated.)
  • In June, I collected responses from the 2018 candidates to the sexism controversy. Most candidates had already said something, but Jim Probst hadn’t. So I asked him for a statement. He said he was working on it and would get it to me as soon as he could. He never did.
  • Last week, I asked Jim about several of these fact checking issues. He hasn’t responded.

If you don’t communicate during your campaign and answer basic questions, then do you really believe in getting messages out?

Probst’s Response (Updated Oct. 19):

I did not directly ask Probst this question, though I did ask for his response on the sexism controversy, which he did provide.

My Take:

So on my second bullet above, about the sexism controversy, it took Probst four months to provide a response (he didn’t give a reason why it took so long). Probst’s response repeated a line he’s used before (that David Meisinger also repeated) about how the council will change after the election and that will help solve the problem. He says 4 of the 7 seats will change, and while that’s technically true, only 3 of the 7 people at the table will change.  Regardless of who wins the mayor’s race, both Anthony Fernandez and Dave Napier will still be on the council (one will just be mayor). I didn’t bother fact checking this the first time around because it felt like too much nitpicking, but since it’s come up again I thought I might as well mention it.

On my third bullet, it took him a week to respond. I guess a response that takes a while is better than no response.

People are busy, I get it. But you’re running a campaign. I think it still undermines his statement that he wants to get messages out.

What Does All This Mean?

I’ll be the first to admit that some of these are minor exaggerations. Overstating the age of West St. Paul’s population isn’t that big of a deal. The important point is addressing the needs of West St. Paul’s seniors.

But exaggerating when a sales tax you’re opposed to could be implemented is a bigger deal. And giving false data about property tax increases to further your stance on taxes is straight up misleading.

The communication issue also isn’t much of a fact check, more of an experience check. But it’s telling when a candidate says one thing and does another.

Nobody can deny that Jim Probst loves this community and has given back in a number of ways. But that doesn’t mean we should overlook misleading political statements. He has an agenda, like everyone else, and from these examples it seems like he’s willing to misstate facts to further that agenda.

Being Fair

Someone might argue that this looks like a one-side fact check: I haven’t corrected any of the statements by the other candidate, John Justen. That’s true, I didn’t. Because I didn’t see any statements that seemed inaccurate.

Also, as I said above, I did give Probst an opportunity to respond to these issues. I emailed him on Wednesday, Oct. 10. As of publication on Tuesday, Oct. 16, I have not received a response. (Update: See above about when Probst responded.)

Vote

Do your own research on the races in West St. Paul, and be sure to vote on Nov. 6 (or vote early). The West St. Paul city website has details on where and how to vote.

For more answers from the Ward 2 candidates, check out my take on the Ward 2 race or these Q&As:

3 thoughts on “West St. Paul Ward 2 City Council: Fact Checking Jim Probst”

  1. Probst could also attend council meetings to reach out to constituents which he does not. He has a lot of half truth statements. You can be a nice person but still not be council member material. I see John Justin as a more engaged person as far as serving on council. John listens and gets people involved.

  2. Hi Kevin – I respectfully disagree with you on Jim Probst. I have know Jim Probst for may years. When ever asked he has give back to this community both financially and of his time. Jim has always been the first to volunteer. I assure you Jim has no agenda other then community and helping other. I am not alone in my opinion on Jim Probst and I know if you were given the chance to really get to know him one on one I think you would agree. That said I believe Ward 2 is going to be well represented regardless of who wins.
    Bruce Napier

  3. Bruce: Thanks for your comment. I never said that Probst doesn’t give back. I specifically said that he does love his community and has given back in a number of ways. Let’s be clear that I’m not questioning Probst’s dedication to West St. Paul.

    I also said he has an agenda, like everyone else. I have an agenda when I write this blog. You have an agenda in coming on here to defend him. I don’t mean that in a nefarious manner. We all have our own motivations. I’m saying Probst has made what I think are some misstatements, specifically about issues he champions, and that’s worth considering.

    I would expect the same scrutiny when I say something misleading about an issue I’m championing. (And that’s happened to me. I said something that wasn’t entirely factual, someone called me on it, and I corrected it.)

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