Community passions run high at St. Pete 2014 Budget Forum

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With enthusiasm in the air —and more than a little anger— St. Petersburg residents had one more chance to have their say in St. Petersburg’s 2014 city budget.

Last night, St. Petersburg residents packed the Enoch Davis Center for the final City Budget Public Forum. The crowd of more than 250 people included community leaders and civic activists.

Also attending were State Rep. Darryl Rouson, mayoral candidates Rick Kriseman and Anthony Cates, members of the People’s Budget Review as well as several city workers.

For more than three hours, they gave Mayor Bill Foster and the most of the City Council an earful on how the city should spend, and save, money. Councilmember Wengay Newton left after about 30 minutes to attend a Rays game. A few speakers noted his absence.

The city faces a $2.8 million shortfall for 2014, significantly less than the $4.3 million first anticipated by city leaders. Growth in property values is one reason given for the decrease.

The proposed 2014 budget seeks to balance the city’s books, starting the largest cuts to:

  • Fire—facing $572,948 in decreases, largely by reducing the contribution to the Fire Pension Fund by $845,000
  • Police—who will be hit with a reduction of $777,963, with cuts to overtime pay and the contribution to the Police Pension Fund

Although many offices will see slight increases in 2014, the City Clerk, Mayor’s Office, Audit Services, and Stormwater, Pavement and Traffic Operations are also forced to tighten their belts.

Topics raised by the public were all over the community spectrum, and covered a lot of ground.

The arts, youth programs, “institutional racism” and the need for more jobs paying a “living wage” were popular issues. Grand Central and Edge communities, as well as Midtown, received particular attention. A number of speakers referred to helping St. Petersburg’s southside through the Agenda 2020 coalition, calling for reducing poverty in south St. Petersburg as much as 30 percent by the 2020 Census.

However, the loudest reactions came for pay raises for city workers. Nearly half of the crowd carried signs calling for “equal work, equal pay.” 

Representatives of Fleet Management and Sanitation departments also addressed the panel. A few claimed they have not received raises for years. They all described their jobs—providing clean water, running toilets and tree branch removal after storms—as just as valuable to the smooth operation of the city as the fire and police. While police and fire departments are essential, they say, other departments are forced to go without for too long.

Each speaker was followed by cheers, shouts and applause.

Claims of employees going three, four or more years without raises “started with a false premise, and got worse and worse,” Foster replied. He said the facts were the Service Employees International Union received pay increases in March 2011, no more than 16 months ago.

Rouson and mayoral candidate Rick Kriseman both took time to address the group. Rouson, a former president of the local chapter of the NAACP whose state district includes parts of south St. Petersburg, called for additional funding for Midtown.

“When I was president of the NAACP,” Rouson said. “I called for Midtown to secede from the City of St. Pete. I did that because we were a ‘donor community.’”

“We were seeing our tax dollars leave Midtown and spent elsewhere,” he added.

A vote to appoint the Southside as a Community Redevelopment Area by the city council is set for June 20. CRAs in St. Petersburg, which includes the areas around Beach Boulevard, Albert Whitted Airport and the Dome Industrial Park, are given special tax financing for business development.

Candidate Kriseman said a budget “defines what your values are, what your beliefs are.”

“Because the work that you do is important work, take what these people say to heart. It will define who we are as a community,” he added

In recent polls, Kriseman is closely following front-runner Kathleen Ford for the race to replace Foster this year. mayor’s seat. Both are currently running ahead of Foster, who sat stone-faced and emotionless throughout much of the night. 

As the budget forum came to an end, District 1 Councilmember Charlie Geddes assured the audience that city workers would get raises in the future.

“It is time to start giving you raises,” Geddes said. “The good news is that’s gonna start this budget year. I don’t know if you will be happy to start, but you’re gonna get raises this year.”

“I think there is the political will across this table to get that going,” Geddes added, “and make it happen.”

 

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.