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St. Pete City Council approves budget amid protests from workers

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete City Council unanimously approved the $224.3 million 2016 budget during another lengthy meeting Thursday. The city’s millage rate for ad-valorem property taxes will stay the same for the third year in a row.

Homeowners will continue to pay $6.77 for every $1,000 in assessed value. It’s worth noting that because property values are on the rise, homeowners may still see an increase on their tax bills, but that is due to higher assessments, not higher tax rates.

The increased values and increase in ownership means St. Pete stands to have about three percent more to work with in the upcoming fiscal year.

It means plans to build a $3.5 million new fire station in Fossil Park will be set in motion and the St. Pete Police will have funding to increase impartial policing training, additional overtime, nearly $500,000 for new gadgets and a reserve unit.

City employees who are not police or fire employees will get a three percent raise.

But you’d need all your fingers and toes to count the number of people who showed up to complain about the budget. Most of them were either employees or someone speaking on behalf of employees lamenting the three percent increase wasn’t enough.

For some that raise should have been more like five percent. For others it wasn’t even about the proposed raise so much as the proposal to remove employees’ step-increases. For most employees losing the step increase cancels out the pay raise. For others it translates to a decrease if you consider they would have been looking forward to a major pay hike at various milestones. In some cases those pay increases were in the double digits.

Under the approved budget, those go away.

“We’re the ones that’s working in the field,” said wastewater operator Kathy Kirkpatrick. “When [sewage] backs up in your house, call the police and the fire and see how far it gets you.”

Her comment echoed those of several others who argued Mayor Rick Kriseman’s proposed budget went a long way in helping out the city’s Police and Fire Departments, but ignored the needs of other city workers.

“[We should be] keeping good employees by paying them what they deserve,” said Caleb Cain, whose wife works for the city. “It costs less than losing them.”

City Council members empathized with the points made by about a dozen employees and their supporters. But the bottom line pointed out multiple times during council discussion was that was out of City Council’s purview. City Council member Wengay Newton said he’s fought for workers’ rights like “cats and dogs.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to pit PD against fire against SEIU,” he said. “All we do is ratify what you guys have agreed upon.”

Newton was referring to union negotiations for city employees. And the union has been fighting hard against eliminating step increases for workers. It’s the union’s only beef with the budget as it pertains to employees.

And even though City Council approved the budget, the step increase is still on the table. The mayor’s administration and union negotiators have not signed off on an agreement. It means there could still be tweaks to employee compensation.

Employee raises weren’t the only area of contention. Several people also lined up to express concerns about funding for the Enoch Davis Recreation Center in Midtown. The facility serves some of the city’s most impoverished residents from youth to seniors.

Speakers told council there have been leaky roofs and prolonged periods without air conditioning. The AC problem has been fixed and the facility now boasts an all-new HVAC system, but residents say they still battle with leaking roofs.

Council members were surprised by the information, saying they had only just learned of the problems, but promised to see they were addressed. Jim Kennedy asked Parks and Rec staff to prepare a report highlighting what the facility’s needs are.

Kriseman took to Facebook to spin the issue into a positive. In a post right around the time council voted on the budget, Kriseman wrote “the Enoch Davis Center received $1 million in renovations 10 years ago; a new A/C this summer … a fitness center … currently painting … new carpet, etc.”

He finished with, “it’s a special place in St. Pete and won’t be neglected on my watch.”

Council members also noted that although there was no new funding for Enoch Davis in the 2016 budget, there also were not decreases to current funding levels.

Another issue raised during the meeting came from an employee worried the city would outsource its worker’s compensation. He asked that council not let that happen. The issue is not under their control, however.

Prior to the budget vote, council members also reluctantly approved a utility rate hike that would add a little over $2 to the average utility bill. The 3.75 percent increase was approved 5-3 with council members Steve Kornell, Newton and Darden Rice opposing it.

Council members expressed concerns over the increases because rates have gone up every year since 1997. They also worried about increasing funding for a department that has been plagued by problems. Most recently the city’s wastewater department was criticized for diverting raw sewage into the fragile Clam Bayou during an extraordinary rain event.

However, when city staff pointed out that not increasing rates could mean bigger increases later on down the road due to the impact on debt service and bond ratings, the five council members voting in favor reluctantly cast their yes votes.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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