Mayor Bill Foster and members of City Council came into Wednesday night's budget summit at the J.W. Cate Center wanting input from the public on how it wants to combat a $13 million budget shortfall for 2013.
After nearly two hours and 32 speakers, the public overwhelmingly said it did not want the budget to be balanced on the backs of service cuts this year, but instead favored and increased millage rates.
Only one speaker of the 32 was opposed to any type of property tax increase.
Most said it was time for everyone to pay a higher share to ensure quality of life is not negatively affected in St. Pete.
Brett Page, a St. Pete resident, said he once paid $4,400 in local property taxes in St. Pete. Now, however, he pays $2,200 less.
"I’m more than willing to pay what’s necessary to keep the city running," Page said. "You should set your needs in your budget and (then) set your revenues to met those needs."
For council member Jim Kennedy, the chair of the Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee, it was what he was hoping to hear.
"What I’ve heard, and something that I've been advocating, is that it's OK to look for more revenue sources. That people are willing to pay to keep this standard" of living, Kennedy said.
"Thank you for telling us it is OK to raise more revenue (to) keep our standard of living."
St. Pete resident Georgia Johnson said youth programs and crime prevention are important. Raising the millage, she said, allows for those types of services to continue. "Prevention rather than incarceration," she said.
"I understand that we already passed a law giving the city (the authority) to collect up to 10 mils," Johnson said.
Now that the public has said it would support higher taxes, Kennedy said he wants to know how much of an increase they would support. Kennedy has said that he favors a fire readiness fee in place of a millage increase,
Another revenue generator the council has discussed is a street light assessment fee.
Foster said that there still will be cuts but it must be met with a millage increase.
"I do recommend that we find $10 million in additional revenue," Foster said at last week's budget workshop. He also said the city could come up with $3 million in reductions packages, which would be specified later, but that is as much as he would recommend.
In a political climate where increasing taxes is considered out of the question, council member Karl Nurse said he appreciates the public recognizing the need to increase revenue.
He said with declining property values, the public is actually paying less than in pervious years. Increasing taxes would allow the city to bring in the same amount of revenue it had last year, he said.
"(I'm) glad that people want to take a U-turn," Nurse said. "Cutting economic development and cutting work in neighborhoods, the result (has been) obvious, high unemployment and neighborhoods are bad."
Council member Bill Dudley said that while he is a conservative at heart, "I heard you loud and clear." He likened getting to the point of increasing property taxes to cutting the fat off of a steak. "We are now close to the meat," he said. "We have cut about all we can cut."
Foster said he was pleased with the turnout – a standing-room only crowd of around 100 people. In previous years, city staff outnumbered the public attendees.
"This was our opportunity to hear your vision for this city as we look forward," Foster said Wednesday night.
A group that made its presence felt at the meeting was the . The group has been collecting surveys since March on what the public values in the city budget.
On Wednesday, the group released preliminary results from 2,000-plus surveys.
- 2,011 surveys have been taken.
- Vast majority of respondents live north of Central Avenue.
- 71 percent of respondents are opposed to further cuts in service.
- More than two-thirds of respondents would support some type of revenue/millage increase.
To take the survey, you can visit peoplesbudgetreview.org.
"I appreciate your... acceptance of this initiative," said Christian Haas of the People's Budget Review to the attendees. "It gives me hope in the direction of the city. I’m convinced that citizens of St. Pete can comprehend and participate in the budget process on the local level."