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Council begrudgingly approves budget, 13% tax increase

Mark Parker

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Albert Whitted Airport. Photo by Mark Parker.

The St. Petersburg City Council approved a new budget and a 13% millage rate increase Thursday, but not before issuing some choice words for Mayor Ken Welch regarding Albert Whitted Airport.

Assistant City Administrator Tome Greene presented the final FY23 municipal budget proposal to council members during Thursday’s meeting. He explained the proposed millage rate – the amount used to levy property taxes – is 6.525% and represents a 13.07% increase.  It would generate about $178.8 million and provide a year-over-year addition of $20.5 million in revenue.

He said the city needs the hike to boost employee wages, support affordable housing initiatives and implement the disparity study. The rise in the millage rate also reflects property values soaring 15.3% from 2021 to 2022.

However, about a dozen public speakers expressed their dismay that Welch would prefer to use local taxpayer dollars that officials could use for social services and housing to fund projects at Albert Whitted Airport rather than approved federal and state funding. Council members later echoed that sentiment, and Chair Gina Driscoll did not mince her words at the meeting’s conclusion.

Driscoll said if residents or officials gained the opportunity to make home repairs for free yet declined the money, they “would be called irresponsible. None of us would do that,” she added.

“This city is our house,” said Driscoll, raising her voice. “We have to be responsible about the money that is spent in our house.”

The drama stems from an earlier budget meeting where officials broached the topic of self-funding the airport. Welch has stated his intention to reject federal and state funding for the airport, which the city must maintain until 2041. If administrators accept the grants, it will extend that timeline.

Several residents asked why funding for Albert Whitted was still in the budget after the council unanimously passed a resolution to continue accepting federal funds during a meeting last month. After Thursday’s public forum, Councilmember Ed Montanari, a former pilot, noted they never received a formal response from the administration.

City Administrator Rob Gerdes said he found the public forum enlightening, specifically the topic of using the airport to support electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOL). He said those are the types of conversations Welch wishes to have regarding the future of Albert Whitted.

However, Gerdes said the administration does not want residents to feel like they are predetermining the airport conversation’s outcome. For that reason, he said, “we don’t want to commit to additional years by accepting grant dollars.”

“And so, the mayor’s position has not changed,” he added. “We did put money in the budget this year to fund the projects.”

The city’s legal department explained that the council could not force Welch – who was not present for the meeting – to accept the funding.

Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz said ignoring the council’s votes predetermines the airport’s outcome.

Montanari expressed his hope for the public to realize that the council has tried numerous times to compel the mayor to put that “much needed” funding into other projects and accept the grants. He also reiterated the people using the airport pay federal taxes on their income and state and federal taxes on fuel.

“And we’re getting some of that money back to improve our airport,” said Montanari. “So, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

Driscoll’s response took a decidedly different tone.

The two immediate safety projects – renovating the airport vault, including adding a backup generator, and replacing decertified tower equipment – total just $356,000. Driscoll, however, relayed that she could think of several other things to spend the money on if Welch had only respected the council’s resolution.

“We’re looking at 17 million dollars, bit-by-bit, coming before council in order to keep the number one airport in the State of Florida operating properly,” she said. “That is why we passed that resolution – because the seven people on this dais are fiscally responsible.

“I strongly encourage the administration to follow suit.”

The council will vote on those projects next year, added Driscoll, who said she “would love” to know if the mayor has a change of heart between now and then.

A graphic explaining operating budget revenues. Screengrab.

In other budget news, Greene relayed that just 32% of city residents’ tax bills typically go to St. Petersburg. Pinellas County Schools takes 29%, and the county coffers receive 24%. The 15% balance goes to several other agencies.

Property taxes fund public safety operations, and ad valorem income has risen in conjunction with those costs. The city’s projected operating budget revenue is $788.84 million, with “charges for services” encompassing 42% of that total.

Operating expenses are just over $760 million, with the general fund and city reserves taking 44.5%. Municipal taxes are the most significant source of that revenue, at 72%, and the largest expenditure from the fund is for public safety, with a $175.47 million cost.

The city council unanimously approved a resolution adopting the final millage rate, an ordinance making FY23 appropriations and a resolution adopting the recommended multi-year Capital Improvement Program.

 

 

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10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Shirley Hayes

    October 8, 2022at3:26 pm

    We low income tax payers are paying for an airport that does not benefit us in any way at all. Not happy Mayor Welch. In addition, we are going to fund city employees that cannot pay their rent. You should have taken that Federal Money to assist us. Your reasoning does not make sense.

  2. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    October 8, 2022at5:17 pm

    Enough with this terrible mayor already.
    He pushes his and the Rays’ agenda. Not ours.

  3. Avatar

    Nicole Caron

    October 8, 2022at6:06 pm

    Mayor Welch’s refusal to accept federal funding for Albert Whitted Airport reminds me of Rick Scott’s refusal to accept federal funding for transportation back in the late 2000s. I didn’t realize our current mayor was a Republican. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have voted for him. His thus far lackluster administration is not winning me over for a reelection bid.

  4. Avatar

    Corbin Supak

    October 8, 2022at11:02 pm

    doesn’t seem like that much money, the city should want control over that land, it could be of tremendous value instead of for the luxury of a few – sounds like an investment in that direction – i’m guessing backlash is from airplane owners who see the writing on the wall? just a guess, i’m not up on the subject

  5. Avatar

    Donna Kostreva

    October 8, 2022at11:30 pm

    This single term mayor wants to increase taxes for subsidized housing for people who cannot pay for housing already available and increase salaries for city workers at the peril of taxpayers already stretched to the max with inflation, high food and gas prices, Duke energy bills caused entirely mismanagement by Democrats in Washington.
    Albert Whitted is VITAL to the safety of our community during times of disaster, and is saving lives daily with Bay Flight. Never voting Dem again!

  6. Avatar

    Nazarre

    October 9, 2022at9:50 am

    The only way to get rid of the airport (which assuredly contributes significantly less to city than any other development on that land would) is to stop accepting federal funds for improvements. This means a period in which the city funds airport maintenance to, paradoxically, remove the airport.

  7. Avatar

    Dave Goodwin

    October 9, 2022at8:43 pm

    The airport is a rich persons toy. It’s unnecessary for supporting the aviation communty given access to the underutilized St Pete Clearwater International. But, any developer would gladly pay off the outstanding loans and pay back the grants to develop the property. The airport could become a great urban neighborhood with a magnificent waterfront park for ALL to enjoy. The possibilities are mind boggling. Finally, jacking up property tax rates during an expansion of the tax base is bad financial planning and overly aggressive spending.

  8. Avatar

    Walt Driggers

    October 10, 2022at4:09 pm

    AWA adds much more value to the community than just to the airplane owners. Almost half the arrivals are from out of town bringing people to do business, vacation, visit our museums or visit friends. St Pete Clearwater is not an under used airport. There is a long waiting list for hangars, their flight schools come to AWA to practice because St Pete Clearwater is too busy. The elevation of the airport makes it a hazard zone where development of a neighborhood totally impractical. St Pete has miles of waterfront parks, many of which are under used, one of which is Albert Whitted Park with playground equipment designed as aircraft for families to enjoy wile watching airplanes. The airport is part of the National Transportation System as a reliever airport for Tampa and St Pete Clearwater. The Helicopter for All Children’s hospital is based there because every minute counts to save critically ill children, which another waterfront park could not do.

  9. Avatar

    KJ Collins

    October 10, 2022at4:35 pm

    I didn’t get a 13% pay raise, inflation is at over 8%, insurance cost going up. The standard of living for myself and many St Pete residents going down and Ken Welch and city council decided to kick us while we are down! Guess I’ll be taxed into poverty in St.Pete by those who are earning over 6 figures making such decisions.

  10. Avatar

    Lisa Anne

    October 11, 2022at1:53 pm

    Why did residents vote for this man as Mayor? As county commissioner for 20+ years, he did nothing to improve his district which was South St Petersburg.

    Raising property taxes in order to fund projects like ‘affordable housing’ for people who don’t pay property tax is ironic at best. Raising property taxes for a ‘disparity’ study’ is throwing away money.

    Hopefully he is a one term mayor and people realize spending other people’s money like a drunken sailor on leave isn’t really the way to improve our city.

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