Following the city council’s recent approval of four ballot questions, residents will help shape St. Petersburg’s future during a November special election.
Council members approved the ballot referendums during their Aug. 4 meeting in time for the supervisor of elections’ submittal deadline of Aug. 16.
These include: asking the public’s permission to expand the waterfront Dali Museum; reinstating property tax exemptions for expanding and relocating businesses; rescheduling municipal elections to even-numbered years to align with state and nation elections and amending the city charter to reflect changes to city council residence requirements due to redistricting.
Residents may also have a chance to decide if St. Petersburg enacts a form of rent control. Council members voted 4-3 to draft a resolution declaring a housing emergency and for city attorneys to prepare the appropriate ballot language after protestors spent the night on the City Hall lawn the night before.
While city attorney Jackie Kovilaritch explained that council members must enact rent control through an ordinance rather than a motion, and time is running out to meet the supervisor of elections’ deadline, the council will discuss the measure again Aug. 11.
Ad valorem tax exemptions
After a referendum to reinstate property tax exemptions for new and expanding businesses failed by 87 votes last November, the item will again return to municipal ballots. City leaders approved the initiative by a 6-1 vote, with Councilmember Richie Floyd dissenting and Councilmember Lisset Hanecwicz absent for the Aug. 4 meeting.
Florida statute stipulates that a city can create a ballot referendum allowing voters to grant officials the authority to provide tax exemptions to businesses over a 10-year term. St. Petersburg voters approved the measure by nearly 67% in 2011.
City leaders hope the item passes in November to stay competitive with neighboring counties and municipalities that offer the exemptions, such as Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties and the Cities of Tampa, Clearwater and Largo.
As Councilmember Copley Gerdes noted, any business wishing to participate in the program would still require the council’s approval, which it has only granted twice.
“If we don’t work on this and really be intentional about increasing opportunities for businesses to come here and bring those good jobs with them, we are going to end up being a bedroom community to Tampa and others,” said Council Chair Gina Driscoll. “And all we’ll be left with is high-end condos and low-paying service jobs.”
Council unanimously approved putting an amended 99-year lease agreement with the Dali Museum in front of voters this November.
While museum officials are still determining the size and scope of the extensive project, it will likely include nearly 30,000 square feet of new space. The additional area will primarily focus on technologically immersive experiences, like the popular Van Gogh Alive exhibit in 2020 and 21. There are also plans to add new educational and community programming.
“To me, this is just one step in moving one of the big entities in our city forward,” said Councilmember Ed Montanari. “I want to make sure that our city is in a position where the Dali Museum can thrive, the Grand Prix can thrive and the Mahaffey Theater can thrive.”
New election cycles
Voters will also decide when St. Petersburg conducts its municipal elections. Currently, residents cast their votes in odd-numbered years, which insulates city elections from state and national races.
However, city council has discussed aligning St. Pete with the larger elections to create an early voting option and possibly increase turnout. Council members first broached the idea in December 2021 after the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office declined a request to provide a separate early voting mechanism for the city.
If passed in November, it would delay 2023 races until 2024, and residents would vote during even-numbered years in subsequent elections. It would also extend the terms of current elected officials, providing Mayor Ken Welch a five-year first term and council members with an extra year in office.
During a July 14 discussion of the proposed ordinance, Floyd expressed concerns over the change resulting in national partisanship influencing local elections but said he was open to changing his mind. While Gerdes also noted some reservations at the time, the city council unanimously approved the ballot question during its second reading.
Without discussion, the council unanimously passed a ballot referendum that would amend the city charter to align with routine redistricting changes to residency requirements for city council members.
The city council approved the four-ballot questions despite not having a municipal election in November – as it is an even-numbered year. To address that issue, council members unanimously approved a resolution to create a special municipal election that aligns with the state, on Nov. 8.