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Public safety, affordable housing among priorities in proposed St. Pete city budget

Margie Manning

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The St. Petersburg City Council has tentatively approved a $640.8 million operating budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The spending plan reflects the city’s vision and value, said Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin.

She cited several highlights at a public hearing on the budget Thursday night.

Public safety. There’s $1.5 million to hire more police officers. Fiscal year 2020 is the first year of a three-year plan to increase the city’s police force from 562 to 600 sworn personnel. There’s also $1.6 million to replace self-contained breathing apparatuses for firefighters, and funding for three new fire vehicles built to limit exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.

Sustainability. The city will add a full-time sustainability coordinator whose work will be focused on tree canopy management.

Sanitation. The city will buy eight new compressed natural gas vehicles and is moving towards a green fleet in the code department with the purchase of hybrid vehicles.

Affordable housing. Mayor Rick Kriseman last month unveiled a 10-year plan to address affordable housing in the city.

“One thing we all know is that there’s not a single solution or candidly any feasible amount of funding that will fully and immediately address the expanse of this need, but with your partnership we push ourselves to do as much as we can as quickly as we  can,” Tomalin said. The budget includes $1.7 million in Penny for Pinellas funding for affordable housing land acquisition. Tomalin called that “a good start.”

The city’s public works program is funded at levels of investment that answer the requirements and commitments imposed in a consent order, imposed after the city released millions of gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay in 2015 and 2016. The budget includes the highest amount of arts grants in the city’s history, Tomalin said. There’s also funding for salary increases for city workers.

“Building a values-based budget calls for discipline, innovation and a commitment to prioritize for the best interest of the whole, even when that comes at times with individual department or team member sacrifices,” Tomalin said. “Pipes or playgrounds, literacy or landscaping, we faced down tough choices and our team’s innovation often means we find a way to answer all the needs and worth demands that come before us with little discernible sacrifice for our citizens. It’s not easy but it’s always right.”

The planned budget also sets aside $154.1 million for capital improvements.

The budget for fiscal 2020 keeps the millage rate — the rate used to calculate local property taxes — the same as this year. However,  there’s a 5.58 percent increase over the “rolled-back” millage rate. The rolled-back rate is what the city would have to reduce the milage rate to in order to account for property value increases to achieve the same budget number as in the current year. By keeping the milage rate the same, the city generates more revenue because of increased property values.

Council member Ed Montanari consistently has pushed for a reduction in the millage rate. Council Chair Charlie Gerdes has agreed with that, but he also said he agreed with Tomalin when she talked about the city’s values.

“Just paying people a living wage, getting to $15 an hour which the city of St. Petersburg has been a leader on, paying a dignified salary for the work they do, paying for health care and for drugs and pharmacy benefits — an increase of 5.68 percent against the rollback rate to me is incredibly responsible,” Gerdes said

Council member Darden Rice recalled that when she was first elected, in November 2013, the city had just gotten out of the recession.

“We were just starting to dig our way out of a hole after years of cuts, and there was a sense that we would be able to reduce the millage rate quickly but that misses the point,” Rice said. “We’ve enjoyed stronger property values  but we’ve had to use this extra money to invest and keep up with our infrastructure. Maybe at some point we’ll be able to roll it back … But you don’t have to look far to see where St. Petersburg is like a lot of other cities, even Tampa, where we have a lot of old buildings, a lot of old pipes, a lot of old bridges. We need to keep our eye on the ball and make sure public safety and infrastructure is taken care of, and I think this budget does that.”

The City Council will hold a second public hearing and a final vote on the budget Thursday, Sept. 19 at 6 p.m.

NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the millage rate plan for fiscal year 2020.

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