$283K police vehicle perk disputed in last-minute City Council pitch for more neighborhood spending

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More than 100 St. Petersburg police cars are driven home at night by cops living outside Pinellas County, at a cost to taxpayers of $283,000.

The police perk was among the arguments given by City Council members Thursday night pushing for last-minute changes to the 2014 spending plan prior to its adoption on a 5-3 vote.

Although the police vehicle policy was not struck down, additional dollars for youth employment, neighborhoods and Main Street businesses were approved.

Members of the public, including young people from some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods who have benefitted from a city-sponsored job internship program, spoke about the boost and direction it has given to them.

Council member Wengay Newton also cited a record number of juveniles arrested in 2013 – 2,185 in nine months – saying high unemployment among disadvantaged youth and lack of opportunities was a factor.

“The Bible says ‘Train up the child,’ not lock up the child,” Newton told the Council.

A majority of the Council agreed to add $300,000 to Mayor Bill Foster’s $212 million operating budget for fiscal year 2014. The money includes:
• $100,000 for for youth employment;
• $180,000 for neighborhood and Main Street grants and assistance;
• $20,000 to address homelessness in Williams Park.

Council member Charlie Gerdes played a pivotal role in convincing fellow Council members to add the $300,000 in neighborhood-level support. While Gerdes lauded the care by which the Mayor’s spending plan was crafted, he said he disagreed with its direction.

“A lot of work went into the budget,” said Gerdes, noting he has made it a point to read the budget cover to cover for the two years he has served as Council member from west St. Pete. “It is well articulated and well explained. But I don’t agree with its priorities.”

Gerdes argued that the $300,000 earmarked for the waterfront master plan should come from the city’s reserves, since it is a one-time expense.

Instead it had been itemized as a recurring cost in the spending plan.

The technical change freed up the additional spending for youth jobs and neighborhoods, which he argued should not come from city reserves but be treated as a recurring cost.

Opposing the amendment were Council members Jim Kennedy, Bill Dudley and Leslie Curran.

Overall, the newly adopted budget, which takes effect Oct. 1, includes $2.8 million to cover a pay raise for city workers, as well as the hiring of five more police officers.

The city anticipates that a rise in property values will enable it to collect $3.1 million more in property taxes in the coming fiscal year. Residents may see a small drop in property taxes.

Fifty-eight percent of costs in the general fund are for public safety – police and firefighting. The second-largest chunk of spending, at 19 percent, is for parks and recreation.