St. Petersburg City Council members met Thursday to start early debate on how the city should allocate its money next week. During a workshop, each council member laid out priorities for the fiscal year 2017 budget.
Several council members, certainly enough for staff to pay attention to when writing the next budget, wanted to work toward lowering the city’s property tax rate. The current tax rate is at 6.77 mills – that means homeowners pay $6.77 per $1,000 of assessed value on their homes. That figure has risen slightly over the past several years. Councilman Jim Kennedy wants to get it back down to 5.9125.
For a homeowner in a house assessed at $150,000, that would save about $129 each year on their property tax bill.
During budget discussions last year leading up to the 2016 budget, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman cautioned against a slight tax rate decrease because the change for homeowners would be so minimal it wouldn’t quite be worthwhile for the city’s loss of overall revenue. Instead, he recommended taking steps to reduce it in the future.
Now City Council seems to be taking that to heart.
“With the additional development that we’ve had and the increases in property value, that may be possible,” Kennedy said.
He suggested that city staff present council with two budgets: one with all of councilmembers’ wish lists and another at the lower tax rates so Council can see “the add-ons or the deletions to get us into that scenario.”
Charlie Gerdes agreed the tax rate should be re-visited. He made an impassioned plea to City administration to right-size the budget. The city’s operating budget of about $295 million is a number Gerdes said feels appropriate.
“I’d like to make sure we’re staying within that $295-$300 million number,” he said.
That, paired with Kennedy’s comments, is key. St. Petersburg is growing. Downtown developers are breaking ground more and more on residential facilities from affordable apartments to attract young professionals to high-end condos attracting well-off retirees. With more people owning, more property tax revenue comes in.
Gerdes’ point is simple: Rather than sinking that money into more and more expenditures, give it back to the people by way of cutting taxes.
Of the seven council members present for the workshop, none put up a fight over the potential to reduce property taxes for St. Pete residents.
Economic development was also a top priority. Gerdes said, or perhaps threatened, that he’s “going to be the Wengay Newton of economic development” and particularly the city’s Grow Smarter strategy that includes attracting large companies that can employ people with high-wage careers.
He also said funding continued merit raises and salary increases for employees should be a top priority.
“It’s important to me for a number of reasons. One is retention of the talent we have and I want to make sure we stay on the road to getting the $15 minimum wage,” Gerdes said.
Lisa Wheeler-Brown gave a concise list of requests in the upcoming budget that included items both in and out of her district. She wants to see better work on potholes in District 7, her district, which includes Midtown and Childs Park.
She also asked that some further protections be put in place for City Hall security guards by funding devices like tasers or pepper spray.
“We all know what happened last week and that could have gone a lot different,” Wheeler-Brown said. She referred to the Feb. 4 outburst by the Uhuru group that led to City Hall being evacuated because someone left a bag behind. Out of precaution, the bag was deemed suspicious and police were called. It turned out to be just personal items.
Wheeler-Brown also asked for more emphasis on affordable housing, and not just in her district. Instead she hopes something can be done to increase efforts throughout the city.
She also asked for items pertaining to workforce readiness for graduating high school students and after school programs for juveniles.
Karl Nurse piggybacked on the idea of focusing on youth, particularly in poor neighborhoods.
“The overall conditions of the preschools are terrible,” Nurse said. “The majority are little more than a grandma with a television.”
According to Nurse, school readiness is one of the top problems facing failing schools in South St. Pete. And part of the problem with getting kids in those neighborhoods ready for kindergarten is a lack of access to good preschools.
To improve that, Nurse wants to look into funding programs that will provide higher wages for preschool teachers who make far below what Nurse described as even close to a living wage.
Nurse also recommended a way to free up more money in the city’s operating budget by using downtown Tax Incremental Funds for more projects rather than funding them through the city’s budget. That would help the city pay for repairs to its aging sewer system, which Nurse has made a top priority. He suggested making repairs any time a road is “redone.”
Homelessness and transportation were also brought up during budget discussions. Council Chairwoman Amy Foster, Kennedy and Wheeler-Brown all mentioned putting more focus on spending money to reduce childhood homelessness. Several references also were made to further transit progress by reducing bus wait times, and to complete streets and parking improvements.
City Council Co-Chairwoman Darden Rice gave a long list of wants for the 2017 budget. That included continuing to advocate for a Cuban consulate in St. Pete.
“Even if it were to go Tampa, I think regionally, that’s a real feather in our cap,” Rice said.
She also asked for $50,000 for a program to increase community outreach on the city’s wage theft ordinance to reach people the city isn’t currently reaching. She also said it’s possible to split that funding with the county.
In a particularly funny moment, Rice advocated for repainting the Crescent Lake Water Tower noting that she’d “like to not chain (herself) to the water tower to get it done.”
Rice also advocated for a program she plans to discuss in further detail later. Health in All policies, Rice said, incorporate health considerations in the decision-making process by looking at “complex factors that affect equity and health.”
Council Chairwoman Foster also asked for potential funding to supplement the city’s chronic nuisance ordinance that was passed but has not yet been implemented.
She also suggested looking into possible funding opportunities to invest in 18- to 26-year-olds to reduce gun violence.
Councilman Steve Kornell argued for efficient street improvements and for replacing the Shore Acres Recreation Center.