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How should city officials allocate tax dollars?

Mark Parker

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St. Petersburg City Councilmember are already discussing their upcoming budget priorities. A recently proposed program could increase public involvement. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

St. Petersburg residents could vote on what projects or departments receive $1 million in funding through a unique program proposed by the mayoral administration.

City Administrator Rob Gerdes said the initiative would help increase participation in the budgeting process. While fiscal year 2025 does not begin until Sept. 29, St. Petersburg officials are already discussing their upcoming financial priorities.

Gerdes told city councilors at a Jan. 25 Committee of the Whole meeting that they would ultimately approve or disapprove of the new “community innovation and engagement budget project.” He noted that many residents offer feedback late in the process, and their ideas are often unfeasible.

“We were trying to find a way where maybe we could have more direct participation from the public,” Gerdes explained. “So, we’re looking at having each administration come up with one new, innovative idea with a maximum expenditure. Right now, we’re looking at one million dollars.

“We would then create a process where the public could actually vote on those ideas … and there would be one winner.”

The proposed program faces fierce competition for city funding. A budget priority matrix lists 141 separate items, with 101 receiving just one mention from the eight-member council.

While six council members prioritized placing a St. Pete Fire Rescue ladder truck back in service, no items received unanimous consideration. In addition, city administrators forecast a $9.5 million budget shortfall.

Budget officials expect services and commodities costs to increase by 4%. They also project $383.18 million in revenues and $392.71 million in expenditures, assuming a 7% boost in ad valorem dollars.

Those figures will change, and the projections do not consider the council’s myriad priorities. Gerdes said the administration again included $1 million in Historic Gas Plant District redevelopment contingency funding.

Gerdes said he was “most concerned” about the owner’s representative expenditures. “We’re still in negotiations with Skanska on that,” he added. “I don’t know yet what those expenses are going to look like.”

Public safety, road and sidewalk, stormwater and tree canopy initiatives were common budget priorities among council members. Several also expressed the importance of increasing city staffing, something Mayor Ken Welch mentioned to the Catalyst in December.

“If we end up approving the Historic Gas Plant District redevelopment, we’ve got some big goals to attain along the way,” said Councilmember Copley Gerdes. “It’s going to be a heavy lift for multiple departments, but specifically in housing and neighborhood services.”

Councilmember Brandi Gabbard, who represents the coastal Riviera Bay neighborhood, is among those prioritizing environmental resiliency initiatives. She noted the frequency of flooding events has significantly increased.

Gabbard’s first request was to fund a Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council action plan. She said that would cost about $300,000.

Gabbard would also like to allocate $1.5 million to flood mitigation loans. She said that would aid storm victims awaiting Federal Emergency Management Agency grant approval.

Councilmember Ed Montanari proposed a slight millage rate reduction, as he did last year. He also wants to dedicate $500,000 to the city’s Economic Stability fund to protect against a major hurricane’s financial fallout.

St. Petersburg City Councilmembers Ed Montanari (right) and Brandi Gabbard represent flood-prone neighborhoods and have stormwater management and environmental resiliency initiatives atop their budget priority lists. Screengrab.

Multiple municipal representatives advocated for further administrative support of the Complete Streets initiative. Council Chair Deborah Figgs-Sanders called pothole problems “ridiculous” and wants to fund additional traffic calming efforts that protect playing children and pedestrians.

Councilmember Richie Floyd said the city only allocated a third of the money necessary to maintain roadways. “And I’d like to see us triple the funding, as fast as we can, to complete the 110 lane miles,” he added.

Floyd and Councilmember John Muhammad expressed their desire to lower city-provided utility rates. Floyd said millage cuts disproportionately aid large property owners who may not live in St. Petersburg.

Several city representatives advocated for additional affordable housing funding. While many discussed budget priorities highlighted ongoing issues, some were unique.

Muhammad wants to see long-awaited streetscape improvements along the 22nd Street South corridor. He also suggested transforming the former Jordan Park housing development’s gymnasium into a tech business incubator and coworking space.

Muhammad said the surrounding community has clamored for a skating rink at the much-maligned Tangerine Plaza site. While Figgs-Sanders wants to expand the city’s increasingly ubiquitous youth STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives, she also hopes to fund programs that foster careers in other industries.

Council members will now offer their budget priorities to administrators in writing. The mayor will present his recommended budget in July.

“Every year, I’m amazed when we get the matrix of the kinds of things that get done based on our priorities,” Gerdes said. “I just appreciate you (administrators) listening and that partnership.”

 

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1 Comment

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    Adrian Lee Steininger

    January 30, 2024at6:27 pm

    We need to lower the city utilities and the costs of rental plus landlords need to be responsible for repairs. Right now they are asking tenants to pay for repairs. The landlords get the benefits not the renters.

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