St. Pete residents weigh city budget options

04/25/13 Janelle Irwin
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St. Pete officials are taking input from residents on how to manage the city’s money. During the first of three budget summits last night in Northeast St. Pete, residents weighed in on what services and projects they think officials should prioritize. Lou Brown III has worked on a project called the people’s budget review that surveyed more than 500 residents.

“Ten percent responded with ending racism, segregation and enhancing the southside. Nine percent of responses were Pier related with some for and some against. Eight percent would like improvements to public transportation. Six percent would like to focus on jobs and the economy and four percent mentioned safety and crime issues – four percent would like to see more citizen input on issues. And the most telling are the responses we received regarding the city’s future with 17% wanting to see improvements in the economy, 15% had a concern for the environment, 15% want social equity and a truly seamless city and 9% focuses on having a safe city above all else.”

All of the results are on the group’s website, peoples budget review dot org. Organizers of their second annual survey told city council members and the Mayor that there should be a vision for the city’s future before any budget is voted on. Dozens of speakers crowded into a small room at the Willis S. Johns Rec Center on north 9th Street. Leonard Schmiege has been a vocal critic of the city’s plan to spend $50 million to build a new pier along the downtown waterfront.

“So, if some people considered an art project – well, for $50 million you could offer 50, $1 million grants to artists or you could do 500, $100,000 grants for artists. Or you could do the same thing with business loans – 50 new businesses, $50 million; 500 new businesses, you each get $100,000 start up money – you’re not going to get that from Bank of America.”

But prior to hearing from speakers, St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster tackled that topic. He pointed out that the new Pier will come from a special fund called Penny for Pinellas and that other capital projects, like plans to build a new police station are funded through tax incremental funds.

“Whether or not we build the pier has little impact on the general fund and whether or not we build the new police department has little impact on the general fund. Now, if it’s more efficient we can control the general fund, but one is TIF and one is Penny for Pinellas. So, if we don’t build the police station that doesn’t mean raises for everyone, it’s a different pot.”

Foster warned residents that even though the city is poised to bring in more revenue soon, it’s not happening yet.

“My message to you tonight is we are still in the cutting mode – we have a revenue problem.”

Foster urged people signed up for public comment to let him and other city officials know if there were any projects off limits when it came time to start making cuts. Kurt Donnely asked that something be done to reduce the economic divide between people who live in South St. Pete and those who live in the more affluent areas in the northern part of the city.

“We could start by, stop arresting all the kids in schools for tic-tack fouls. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. They’re getting arrested for stuff everyone in this room has done – talked back to a teacher, got into a fight in a hallway, tried to break up a fight in a hallway, those aren’t reasons to throw kids in jail and give them permanent records. Most of the other cities in Florida have moved to a civil citation program for juveniles and those programs have a less than 7% recidivism rate. What we’ve got going on is more like a 75% - it’s not working.”

Several speakers echoed Donnely saying the city needs to be sure not cut back on community programs for at risk kids. But others focused more on what Mayor Foster called a revenue problem. Matt Florell has called on the city to get rid of its red light camera program. He’s worried that changes made to the city’s policy on who gets a ticket may end up digging into the budget.

“The yellow lights that were too short for the first year of the program were fixed and that accounts for about 5% of the citations issued. The city’s no longer issuing citations for 1/10 of a second violations I’ve heard – that accounts for another 10% of citations and the city will no longer money from rental car and other affidavit citations which accounts for over 5% of citations, but will most likely double or more over the next year due to the change in policy.”

Two more budget summits are scheduled before city council votes on the 2014 budget. The next will be on May 15 at the J.W. Cate Center on 22nd Avenue North. The final meeting will be on June 12 at the Enoch Davis Center on 18th Avenue South. Both meetings begin at 6 p.m.

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Hopefully this message, that a community needs vision to move forward, is picked up by other cities and communities all over Florida. #stpeteforward

People need to get involved, the Pier and the Rays are the least of our problems...