St. Pete group calls on community involvement in the city's budget

03/19/12 Janelle Irwin
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Political activists launched a non-partisan initiative this morning that aims at giving citizens of St. Petersburg a louder voice in the budgeting process. On the steps of City Hall, 40 supporters of the People’s Budget Review learned details of the process that reaches out to residents to gather their ideas on how tax dollars should be spent at the city level. Christian Haas spoke about the process at a press conference.

“Essentially we want to have aggregate data of the citizen’s view of the city government; what they should be doing. Should they raise revenue in anyway? What services are most important? And we want to take it to the budget summits and see how close the city’s budget is to the citizen’s vision.”

Members of several different groups collaborated to come up with a survey for residents of St. Petersburg to take. It asks questions about public services, taxes and transportation. Haas said the goal is to complete 10,000 surveys.

“This is just the beginning of a very intensive, three-month long grassroots campaign of hitting the net, getting on the phones, going to the neighborhoods and knocking on doors. So, the more people we have engaged, the louder our voice will be, the more resounding our message will be and ideally this becomes an annual process to where the citizens expect an opportunity to participate in the budgeting process. They know that there’s activists out there that are going to go fight for their surveys that they filled out. And in my idealistic world, we figure out some way to have a very well polished survey, as objective as possible, institutionalized into the governing structures of our city.”

Rick Smith is the chief of staff for the Florida Public Service Union. He was one of many to participate in the survey writing and planning process. He said keeping political opinions out was one of the biggest priorities.

“It was hours and hours and hours of discussion and debate and ideas. This coalition is quite broad. So it ranges from the right to the left. So we wanted to make sure that while the survey reaches certain conclusions that there was nothing leading in there. So, putting that kind of piece together is pretty important because the main thing is that everybody gets a chance to say what they want.”

Organizers including Darden Rice, president of the St. Pete branch of the League of Women Voters, also said it was important to make the survey both quick and easy so it can reach out to residents from all walks of life.

“Let me tell you something. You don’t need a degree in economics or accounting to figure this out and to help out with our cause. All you need is common sense about what matters most to you. We will give you a summary of how the city is spending and managing our tax dollars and then we will offer you a menu of decisions that you will make just like you were speaking directly to our nine elected city officials.”

The survey also gives a voice to the otherwise voiceless. There are no age barriers for taking it, so teenage students can use the survey as an opportunity to reach out to elected city officials. As the mother of a high school student, that’s something St. Pete resident Jennifer Scott appreciates.

“If my kids don’t have a voice now, they’re not going to have a voice when they’re thirty. When they’re living in this town and working in this town, it could fall apart and they didn’t have the opportunity to stop it when they were young and change it better for them in the future.”

The concept behind the initiative isn’t new. Mike Gulley, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations of South Pinellas County, said his group has had a budget review committee for several years. But he added that this is the first time such a process has been open to everyone.

“Prior to this initiative, we’ve never had the mechanism to effectively query the public; to ask questions that the mayor and the city council have been asking. Let them know our needs verses our wants. A number of us have worked to put this survey together to get a variety of points of view so we can have some insurances that the people are truly being heard. We want to encourage everybody to take the survey. Add any comments you wish. There are some comment sections. Let your views be known. It should not be a matter of what one’s personal politics are. Everyone can have a voice.”

Even though the survey has only just begun, speculation about what residents’ priorities will be is well underway. And in the spirit of the non-partisan language used to draft the survey, Rick Smith expects there to be a pretty broad mix of solutions.

“What was really the common point of agreement was there’s three ways to deal with the city budget. You either get more revenue, you shift the revenue that’s there or you get efficiencies in service. What we all kind of agreed was you got to do all three. We got a six million dollar deficit. We can beat that and add more money to needs that people say that they need in the communities.”

Organizers of the People’s Budget Review are continuing kick-off events throughout the day. This evening, they will be canvassing Bartlett Park to find people to take the survey. Then, on April 25th, the group hopes to have 2-3,000 surveys completed to give to officials at a budget summit. Mayor Foster is set deliver a final budget proposal to city council on July 1st. The group hopes to have met their goal of 10,000 surveys by that point.

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