At budget summit St. Pete residents ask for higher taxes, fewer cuts to services

04/27/12 Samuel Johnson
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The City of St. Petersburg is confronted with a budget deficit of nearly $13 million. Wednesday at the Cate Recreation Center the city hosted the first of three public budget summits. The packed house of 100 residents could only agree that the status quo of cuts without revenue hikes isn’t working.

A group called People’s Budget Review has collected over 2000 opinions from residents and submitted them to city council and Mayor Bill Foster. The opinions reveal that city residents are not opposed to tax increases as long as further slashes in libraries, recreation centers and parks are not made. Lewis Brown of the NAACP said the Mayor and city council can expect more input from the city’s residents.

“Since our launch on March 19th we've gathered over two thousand surveys from everyone in the city; and feel that waiting until our initial goal of ten thousand to release results would actually be detrimental to the process of the budget as it carries forward. So with this we want to release those specifics and some information that we've gathered from your responses.”

A variety of organizations like the League of Women Voters and the Service Employees International Union stated their opinions on the proposed budget. Libraries may seem like a relic of the past in the digital age. Yet underfunding libraries can have a far reaching effect. Ernie Coney, president of the [Friends of the James Weldon Johnson Library, said that the library provides many more advantages.

"We need the resource. We need the resource because that's the place. The oasis where people come in order to use the libraries. You go into our branch and you see people on all the computers. Everybody is on line because ninety percent of them don't have computers at home.”

Council member Wengay Newton suggested juvenile delinquency could be more effectively reduced by increasing funding for public services rather than spending more on police.

“Each police officer you see costs us one hundred thousand per to put on the street. That's the salaries, the cars, kevlar, Tasers, glocks the whole nine; one hundred thousand dollars per. So we ain't going to arrest our way out of this. We have got to provide more opportunities for these young people so they can be assets to these communities not deficits.”

Some residents didn’t see the budget issue so black and white. They advocate a third and greener option. Tony Rawson said that the city should look to be more energy conscious.

”I imagine there's a lot of very energy consuming light bulbs and other systems the city has. That to me have a lot of cost savings that can be made just by just by properly investing in our future.”

According to Mayor Foster, the city is already engaged in greener approach to the city’s energy needs.

”We have seventeen solar part projects under construction now along with twenty four solar hot water heater projects. And we estimate a savings of approximately a million dollars in energy costs once these are complete. So, we are looking at ways not only to be a little more environmentally friendly but certainly more cost efficient as well.”

If the city intends to increase taxes, it will still have to determine where that revenue will come from. One suggestion is to raise property taxes. But there are other proposals like a fire readiness fee. Council member Jim Kennedy said that proposal needs to be studied more in depth.

”I'd like to offer to the People's Budget committee to work with them on some phrase of the questions and the pro's and con's on that. So we can get more input from people as to whether they like the concept or not.”

The next budget summit will be held May 16 at Roberts Recreation Center.

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