Thursday, April 26, 2012

In St. Pete, the public says no to cuts and yes to tax increases at Budget Summit

Posted By on Thu, Apr 26, 2012 at 11:13 AM

Wednesday night a cross-section of St. Petersburg packed into the J.W. Cate center on 22nd Avenue for the first of St. Petersburg's three scheduled budget summits. Upward of 100 senior citizens, parents, college students, city employees and professionals packed into folding metal chairs inside the room. More residents flanked the walls of the room.

The message from residents was clear — quit cutting spending and raise property taxes.

Mayor Bill Foster and City Council met with residents to try and figure out how to bridge the gap of $13 million in next year's budget. St. Petersburg's property tax rate hasn't changed since 2007, despite changing economic conditions. Over the last five years, the city lost $100 million in property tax revenue. Richard Bulger presented the budget as it stands now.

"It's one change that will continue to generate revenue," Bulger said.

Using $10 million the city's "rainy day" fund would only cover the deficit once and leave the account depleted in case of emergency. The shortfalls in revenue exceed expenses of $100 million over the next six years without any changes.

Pinellas Point resident Vince Cocks spoke in favor of raising property taxes. Cocks calculated the 1.124 percent increase in the millage rate on nearby homes over a year.

"At my home the increase would only be about $40 a year," Cocks said. "At the mayor's home, it would be about $100 a year increase. For Bill Edwards home it would be a $3,000 increase."

City park, pool and library hours have been cut. Parking fees have been raised. Meter prices have doubled. Wednesday's meeting made clear the city needs more revenue.

"We've kicked the can down the road for too long," council member Charlie Gerdes said. "We need to look for revenue."

Brett Page is in favor of raising the millage rate.

"I am willing to pay what's necessary to keep the city running," Page said. "We need to set our needs and set the revenue to meet those needs."

People sporting People's Budget Review pins dotted the room.

The People's Budget Review is a citizen survey initiative that launched in March. Since that time, 84 volunteers collected 2,000 surveys online and in-person on the public's views on the city budget. Data from the survey noted that 71 percent were opposed to further cuts to city services. Sixty-seven percent were in favor of raising property taxes to balance the budget. And 43 percent believe economic development is important.

"To the People's Budget, God Bless You," Foster said. "We need you."

Louis Brown III of the Peoples Budget Review, reading survey results at the first budget summit Wednesday.
  • Arielle Stevenson
  • Louis Brown III of the People's Budget Review, reading survey results at the first budget summit Wednesday.

Christian Haas of Awake Pinellas noted his appreciation for the meeting's attendance and city council's reception.

"I am excited to grow up and work in a city that appreciates the citizen voice," Haas said to Foster and the city council.

Other options include flat rate fees for fire and streetlights. Council member Jim Kennedy said he's in favor of the fire assessment fee. The fee would be $5 or $10 a month on every property in the city, including vacant lots, non-profits and churches.

City council hears public opinion on the budget deficit Wednesday night.
  • Arielle Stevenson
  • City council hears public opinion on the budget deficit Wednesday night.

"A fire fee per parcel on real estate of $120 a year would raise $12 million," Kennedy said. "It would relieve the general fund from paying for fire services specifically so those dollars could go to sustain the rest of the city."

If the fee was implemented, Kennedy said he would rather not increase the millage rate as well. But he agrees that there can be no more cuts to city services.

"If we were to cut $13 million from the budget, it would be draconian," said council member Jim Kennedy.

No final decisions have been made and there are still two meetings left before council will propose changes regarding the budget. The second of three budget summits is Wednesday, May 16 at the Roberts Recreation Center at 1246 50th Ave. North in St. Petersburg.

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