St. Pete officials start budget planning with community forum
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is getting ready to write his first city budget since being sworn in this year.
More than 50 residents flooded the Walter Fuller Community Center Wednesday night for the first in a series of budget review meetings where city officials will hear what taxpayers want their money spent on.
Kriseman said the budget will be a reflection of the city's priorities.
“St. Petersburg will be a city of opportunity where the sun shines on all who come to live, work and play. We will be an innovative, creative and competitive community that respects our past while honoring our future.”
Kriseman unveiled his "The Sun Shines Here" vision earlier this month in front of some 200 city employees during a jubilant rally. The plan includes what Kriseman described as stewardship and community engagement. And that sentiment was reflected as dozens of speakers lined up to encourage Kriseman to listen to the people who elected him. Kofi Hunt is a political organizer who helps with a city initiative called the People's Budget Review.
“The median income in St. Petersburg is $27,825 and 80% of the household incomes in St. Petersburg are $60,000 or below. We need to acknowledge a simple fact: St. Petersburg is a working class city.”
And supporters of the People's Budget Review want those working class people to have a voice in St. Petersburg. Karen Lieberman is a retired professor who has lived in St. Petersburg for just a year and a half. She asked that the mayor allocate more resources to some of the poorest neighborhoods.
“We're in the process of recovering from the great recession. The cuts on both the state and federal level have been horrific. All of St. Pete has suffered, but it has been dreadful on the south side. It is imperative that the city create or invest in programs to assist the south side in order to advance a seamless city.”
The People's Budget Review is made up of several groups including labor unions and environmental organizations. The group sent out robo-calls to thousands of St. Pete residents last night to boost attendance. Thus, most of the speakers were supportive. But not everyone. Staunch Tea Partier David McKalip cautioned the mayor and city council members about listening to the group's suggestions arguing they aren't representative of the city as a whole.
“They believe that you should place on the ballot regularly items that the citizens will vote on for spending. Well, I have news for the People's Budget Review, in America we are a republican. When we pledge of allegiance to the flag we don't pledge of allegiance to the democracy for which it stands, but to the republic for which it stands which means that we elect you, our representatives, to make tax and spending decisions for us. Direct democracy leads to mob rule.”
Instead of suggesting how the city spend its money next year, McKalip told officials to just spend less.
“I'd like to challenge you, this year, to cut taxes and utility bills by $10 million. It went up $10 million last year, $10 million the year before. I'd like to challenge you that over the next ten years you cut spending and taxes by $100 million which will get us back to where we were in 2001 before the exorbitant tax increases hit this city.”
Other suggestions included pedestrian and cyclist safety. Peggy Green considers herself an avid walker. She said that's why she knows how dangerous that can be in St. Petersburg. Green is calling on elected officials to take steps to make a more walkable community. That includes making some changes at traffic lights.
“If you stand in front of the hot dog stand in Williams Park and look across 2nd Avenue you will see something that's both dangerous and absurd - a turn arrow for cars and a pedestrian walking light that occurs simultaneously placing pedestrians and moving vehicles in the crosswalk at the same time. Stand there long enough and you'll see babies in strollers and city buses in the crosswalk at the same time.”
Environmental concerns also popped up during budget recommendations. Constance Price showed an enlarged photograph of a public trash bin in downtown St. Pete overflowing with aluminum cans and plastic bottles. She said everywhere there is a garbage can, there should be a recycling bin right next to it.
“As many people as there are picking up cans to try to supplement their family income there must be a way to put that toward some sort of a revenue stream toward repaying the cost of putting the receptacles in.”
Price gave Mayor Kriseman the picture so he wouldn't forget her suggestion.
Kriseman has to submit a budget to city council by July 1. Two more budget review sessions are planned for May 14 and June 18.