Listening to residents, St. Pete raises property taxe rate for first time in more than two decades

09/28/12 Janelle Irwin
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St. Petersburg City Council has approved a budget that doesn’t include the controversial Fire Readiness Fee. After hearing from impassioned public comment, council members increased the city’s millage rate in a final vote Thursday night.

Winding up the 2012 fiscal year, St. Pete officials found themselves having to dig into reserves to cover a more than $5 million shortfall. To cover that, city officials proposed a flat tax on all properties regardless of their value. The Fire Readiness Fee would raise $10 million to pay for this year’s deficit and avoid future deficits. Outraged residents came out in full force two weeks ago and the fee was killed. But council member Jim Kennedy resurrected it in the city’s final budget hearing.

“It kind of amazes me that everyone that came up and spoke that – except for the doctor – no one was really opposing a 12% hike in the millage rate. That just kind of surprises me and I think that’s a potentially dangerous thing.”

The 12% hike Kennedy is referring to came from the city’s new revenue plan to raise millage rates from about $5.91 per $1,000 of assessed value to $6.77. Instead, Kennedy proposed a $30 per month flat tax on properties and a slightly lower millage hike to $6.33. His motion died for a lack of a second. Monica Abbott was one of a dozen or so residents to speak against the fire fee. She rambled off a series of statistics showing that the hardest hit homeowners can’t afford a regressive flat tax.

“Home equity, once thought of as a cushion in retirement has been especially devastated. The bursting of the housing bubble has erased nearly $6 trillion in equity and left nearly 13 million people owing a total of $660 billion more on their mortgages than their homes are worth according to Moody’s Analytics. This data is catastrophic to your constituency.”

Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association member Tom Tito was upset that some city council members went so far as to imply poor people aren’t paying taxes.

“Even the poorest people in St. Pete – we’re paying about $600 minimum utility fees, some cases flat fees – whether or not you need the service – we’re paying a tax on electric bills and we’re paying a tax on water bills so the idea that some people don’t pay anything is just not true.”

Many of the speakers were progressive residents who supported a local initiative called the People’s Budget Review. It gave St. Pete residents the chance to weigh in on what they wanted in the city’s budget. The Fire Readiness Fee didn’t pass muster on that survey. But not everyone opposing it came from the left side of the political spectrum. Tea Party blogger David McKalip was agreed with fire fee opponents, but didn’t want to see any tax hikes at all.

“You keep saying, ‘well, what kind of city do you really want?’ As if you really think you create the kind of city we want. As if you really think that quality of life flows from this council and how they raise taxes and simply raising the taxes creates quality of life. You say things like, ‘we’re going to deconstruct the city.’ Is that a threat? I mean, do you really think people don’t laugh when they hear you say such ludicrous things?”

Bartlett Park Neighborhood Association’s Tito argued the city could do more to reduce spending. He blasted council members for considering funding unnecessary projects.

“High taxes come from high spending. When people see the city talking about building a new $600 million stadium or spending $50 million to start a pier that might cost $150 million and not asking private investment in that pier – I think that has a chilling effect.”

City council approved the 6.77 millage rate by a vote of 5 to 3 with Jim Kennedy, Jeff Danner and [Lesley Curran]9 voting against it. The property tax increase is the first in 22 years and represents about $80 more on a home assessed at $100,000 after exemptions. Opponents asked council members to use reserves instead of raising taxes, but that didn’t fly with council member Bill Dudley.

“We need to find a way to raise the taxes to the point where we generate enough money where we don’t have to do that.”

City Council member Wengay Newton supported using reserve funds even though he voted for the hike. He also tried shifting some money around in the budget to increase the city’s youth services. Newton said increasing funding from a quarter of a million dollars to a million would save the city some money in the end.

“We spend $10-20,000 a month every month from the police department to the Pinellas County Sheriff for juvenile booking services. We’re talking 11-17 and that dollar amount represents 150-165 kids a month, every month.”

Newton’s motion to set aside funds to keep youngsters out of trouble wasn’t seconded. His colleague, Karl Nurse also tackled a pet project – rehabbing the city’s curb appeal. Nurse asked council to approve moving $500,000 from the economic stability fund to a contingency fund where it could be used for a housing renovation program.

“We had the lowest percentage of homeowners, the highest percentage of homes that need to be renovated, the highest percentage of vacancies and I don’t candidly understand why it’s not viewed as a crisis.”

The city of St. Pete also spent money preparing for the Republican National Convention kick-off party at Tropicana Field last month. Tampa is giving St. Pete $950,000 to cover police costs, but taxpayers could still be on the hook for more. Vince Cocks lives in the Pinellas Point neighborhood in South St. Pete. He wants Mayor Bill Foster to start dishing out some of that information.

“What’s troubling is a lack of verifiable evidence of how RNC prep expenses will be taken care of. Over half a million dollars are at stake here. What is more important is explanation, much more important that eloquence. Rhetoric falls on deaf ears. Treat us like grown ups. We’re plenty smart enough to figure it out.”

City Council chair Lesley Curran later agreed that the Mayor isn’t being open enough about the convention expenses. She called it a “huge transparency issue”. The city’s fiscal year ends on Sunday and the new budget will take effect on Monday.

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