St. Pete City Counsel votes 5-3 to approve Bill Foster's fiscal budget
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09/13/13 Samuel Johnson
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A divided St. Petersburg City Council voted late last night 5-3 to adopt Mayor Bill Foster's tentative fiscal year budget. The City Council Chamber filled up quickly, prompting the city to open two additional rooms with close circuit television. Regular citizens and members of grassroots organizations appealed to the City Council to tax less and spend more.

One organization, the People's Budget Review, had several members in attendance. It's a grassroots organization with heavy hitting partners like the League of Women Voters and the NAACP. Rick Smith has been an active member of the People's Budget Review since its beginning. He said there are 3 modest proposals.

"..to deal with youth unemployment, particularly in the African-American community; economic development on the South Side of Saint Pete; and the revitalization of neighborhoods. That total, 'ASK', is about $450,000. Though the benefits would be remarkably; pay off many times that amount of investment."

A reoccurring theme of more than 4 hours of public debate was jobs. Robin Wynn, a member of the SEIU Florida Public Services Union, is concerned about city lay-offs. She said she has seen first hand the need to invest in the youth of all areas of St.Pete.

"I keep hearing things 'just for the South Side; no all over. And I keep hearing things about Mid-town; no all over. If you're going to build a better city, (then) it's all sections of the city that need to be worked on. I'm a city worker of 19 years; I know. I ride around the city every day."

Mayoral candidate, Rick Kriseman, criticized the proposed budget. He advocates setting aside nearly $400,000 for youth jobs, poverty roll-back and neighborhood revitalization. Kriseman said the current budget from Bill Foster falls short of those goals.

"Well, the only nod I get from the Mayor was $30,000 for neighborhood partnership grant program. Which, historically, is funded at $250,000 and the People's Budget Review is funded at $250,000. If we're going to revitalize our neighborhoods we're not going to be able to do it with $30,000. It's going to take more than that."

Many citizens who spoke to the council also pleaded for a greater focus on community revitalization. Sherry Howard, a member of People's Budget Review, is actively involved in monitoring the formation of the St. Pete budget. She said her activism stems from civic pride and responsibility.

"I'm a part of that district; I'm a part of that community. So, I wanted to make sure that the monies were appropriately dispersed in the areas that needed them the most. Like Botley Park, the 16th street corridor, 18th avenue, Campbell Park and the surrounding areas. But particularly that area; Midtown."

Not everyone thought the City Council could be persuaded to amend the budget. David McKalip, a St. Pete physician who unsuccessfully ran for City Council this year, was one of the skeptics. He said the current Mayor and City Council members are practicing a business as usual tactic and not addressing the real issues.

"They give money to SRI, $10 million. They make sure that they keep raising taxes and fund feel good projects but they don't even give the basic things. Like the pension plans, $325 million are underfunded. They've created a recipe that will turn us into Detroit in 5 to 10 years."

The tug and pull of priorities in a tentative city budget is nothing new. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, CEO of the Center for Community and Economic Justice, worked with Peoples's Budget Review. She also has hands-on experience drafting a budget for the City of Philadelphia. Scruggs-Leftwich said St. Pete needs to tap into its rainy day funds now.

"One of the paradoxes of Florida is that in every other State you have help the state government because people pay state taxes. And in Florida nobody pays state taxes. So everything costs an arm and a leg. And there is this inclination to husband the funds for this rainy day. In the meantime, kids and their families, people who are very depressed economically, are drowning."

The dissenting council members, Leslie Curran, Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton, have promised detailed amendments to the tentative budget. They will be presented at the next public meeting on September 26th. City Council has until October 1st to approve a balance budget.

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