Tensions Rise at Second Budget Summit
On Wednesday night, the City Council members and the Mayor hosted a second workshop to let the public have a say in the 2013 budget.
The second city budget summit proved to be more diverse and dynamic than the April summit.
At the April meeting, more than 90 percent of those who spoke favored raising the millage rate instead of cutting city services.
Wednesday evening at the Roberts Rec Center, a vocal minority made its point very clear that any tax increase was unacceptable.
St. Pete resident David McKalip, lambasted the Council "playing charades" with the budgeting process. He accused the Council of wasteful spending.
"The (budget) shortfall is a phony," McKalip said. "We hear the same fear mongering. This is all nonsense; build memorial piers to ourselves, silly wasteful street projects ... $75,000 pension and benefits. You have a political class and the rest of us.
"This is a sham, charade, political circus," McKalip continued. "You have all made up your minds. This is a joke. You are having parties at the Trop while the rest of see our taxes go up. The political class is sucking the life out of us. Each one of you are the reason for our problems."
Council member Charlie Gerdes took issue with the tone of McKalip's heated comments.
"The comment that was made that we don’t feel the pain," Gerdes said. "Candidly and straightforward, when you make a comment like that, your credibility goes to zero.
"We live here. We pay taxes here. I think all of us feel the pain," Gerdes said.
For fiscal year 2013, which begins in October, the city is facing a $13 million shortfall. The Council and Mayor Bill Foster are exploring a millage rate increase, cuts, department consolidations, a fire readiness fee or a combination to close the budget gap.
Foster said Wednesday that the city definitely could shave $13 million from the budget in cuts alone, but the city that everyone has fallen in love with would become unrecognizable.
"We have found that it will no longer be doing more with less," Foster said. "Gets to this point where we are doing less with less."
Cutting $13 million, Foster cautioned, would force rec centers to closer earlier, limited operating hours for libraries, a decrease in services and programming and even a reduction in the city's most expensive department, the police.
"We can cut $13 million but it will begin the de-evolution of a city decades in the making," Foster said.
Foster has said that staff can find $2 million to $3 million in cuts, but the rest of the gap has to be met with a combination of new revenues.
Just like the previous summit, the People's Budget Review released more results from its ongoing survey to find out what budget issues are important to the residents of St. Petersburg.
While the group said the demographics in race and in geography of the respondents had become more diverse since the first portion of the survey, the results stayed the same.
According to more than 4,000 surveys taken, the public would support a millage increase over cuts to services.
"We’ve got a very statistical and representative sample that is reflective of the demographics of the city," said Christian Haas with the People's Budget Review.
Haas said conclusive results from the survey indicated that the city supports economic development, more environmental sustainability programs, investments in critical infrastructure, but that the city needs to come up with more specific proposals before the next budget summit.
Other results from the People's Budget Review:
- 46 percent wanted to raise the millage enough to fill the budget gap
- 54 percent wanted to raise the millage enough to fill the gap plus additional revenues for investments
- 79 percent said no more cuts, while 22 percent said to cut more
To take the survey, you can visit peoplesbudgetreview.org.
Similar to the latest People's Budget Review results, more than two-thirds of the crowd that spoke at Wednesday's meeting spoke in favor of a millage increase.
Charles Sprague, did not agree with the overall sentiment at the second budget summit. He said the city has a spending problem not a budget problem.
"Shrink back down," Sprague said at the summit. "We are all spoiled. We all enjoyed the good times. We are not growing now, we are shrinking. Bring the costs down.
"Privatize the garbage collection, privatize the parks, the maintenance," he said.
St. Pete resident Anthony Rawson said that while many against the millage increase promote privatization instead of a millage increase, he said that is not the answer.
Rawson said he appreciates knowing that when he sees an employee of the city, that that employee is getting paid a living wage.
Private billion-dollar companies, Rawson said, will not pay employees enough to get by. "I don’t want to see some minimum wage slave, but real employees getting a real wage."
At the conclusion of the meeting Gerdes and council member Bill Dudley said it is important for the public to know that raising the millage does not mean that you will be paying more in taxes than the previous years.
In 2005, Dudley said, the millage rate was 7 and is now 5.9. "It has not changed in seven years," he said.
For the last several years, homeowner have seen their property values decline, Gerdes said, which means that while the tax rate is the same most people are paying less.
"The property values have come back to 2005 (levels), but taxes are a full millage rate lower today than in 2005," Gerdes said.
The third and final budget summit is scheduled for June 13 at the Manhattan Casino, 642 22nd St. S.
By that summit, the council hopes to have more specific budget actions the city wants to take.
"We are still working on our budget," Foster said "Specifically, (it's) going to come down to a philosophy as far as revenue generation. Is it more equitable to do a modest fee across every parcel or strictly put that onto those paying taxes."