Serious suggestions for solving St. Pete’s budget debacle

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St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster was recently seen on a local television station telling his constituency that he would have to shut down  some of the libraries, quit maintaining the parks and let those “amenities” that citizens enjoy deteriorate all due to a budget shortfall.

A spectacle not even thinly veiled as a scare tactic to encourage St. Pete residents to agree to city tax and fee increases to address the impending doom of budgetary problems.

The crowning statement was “I should have done this last year because I knew there was a problem.” In case you missed the blaring point here, the Mayor is admitting that he knew there was a problem last year, and yet he chose not to address it then.

During the last budget meeting, Foster pitched the well-known budgetary shortfall problem to City Council, and while there was some push back, Council members spent the majority of the meeting caught up in the details of whether to raises taxes, how to tax, what fees to raise, etc. and far less time addressing the bigger picture.

What is the bigger picture? Based on the Charter amendment that passed,  City Council should demand that the administration support the libraries, maintain the parks and amenities that make St. Pete the great city that it is, and to bring forward a reasonable plan for a balanced budget.

Here are a few specific solutions:

Engineering Department

In examining the detailed budget for the Engineering Department, millions of dollars are allocated towards salaries and other costs offset by something called “Burden Capital Costs.”  This appears to be a clever way of masking costs in an over-bloated, less than effective department by capturing the revenue from capital projects.

This line-item merely shifts the cost from one bucket to another. So, if the city were to remove $750,000 to $1 million dollars from the Engineering department by reducing costs and staff, that is a $750,000 to $1 million savings for the city. Speaking as someone who has been a recipient of their services, no one will miss this cut.

The Business Review Services Department

The Business Review Services department 2012 Budget is $880,000. Why? Eliminate the Business Development Review Department completely and pass responsibility to the Chamber of Commerce. Do they not review business services in the city already? Great—now there is another $880,000 saved for the city.

Economic Development

The Economic Development 2012 Budget is $684,000. Also, eliminate Economic Development completely and pass this responsibility to the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce or even a citizens’ committee of volunteers. Now we’ve saved an additional $684,000 in the budget.

Police Communications Center

The Police Communications Center 2012 budget is about $ 6.8 Million. There is no need for all of the responsibility of these services and therefore expense to be fully absorbed by the City of St. Petersburg. Outsource this effort to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, eliminate one assistant chief and place the remaining civilians under the Chief’s office. A Conservative estimate of this restructuring equates to an actual annual savings of $2.75 to $3.25 million.

It’s time to add up the cost savings. Using the conservative numbers detailed above, just by altering four City departments alone, there is a savings of more than $5 million dollars. This is almost half of the total shortfall. Even more could be cut in other departments such as parks and recreation and other amenities where costs for such highly utilized services could be offset by tighter organizational structures and shared responsibilities.

Some may be concerned that cutting staff and funding in these departments would be counterproductive to the City’s effectiveness in providing needed services in our community. I argue that in making such cuts and restructuring, the City will have an opportunity to greatly improve services to the organization and the public in myriad ways. And we have only scratched the surface here. There are countless opportunities to tighten and restructure such as the ones mentioned here.

The people have to get off of the payroll for real costs to be cut. No hide and shuffle the shell games. I’ll repeat this—costs have be eliminated not switched around and hidden. It is tough, and it requires courage and leadership—attributes that appear to be in short supply at City Hall.

Via Gene “Doc” Webb. You may reach Gene at dr.webb@verizon.net.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.