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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Budget season opens in St. Pete

Mayor Rick Kriseman’s proposed budget, unveiled publicly Tuesday, contains a now-standard goal not to raise property taxes — if kept, it will be the fourth straight year of keeping the millage rate at 6.77.

But rising property values have aided the projected revenue growth in the general fund from $224 million currently to $231.5 million, according to Kriseman’s proposal.

That’s enough for some City Council members, most vocally Jim Kennedy and Ed Montanari, to call for serious consideration of a tax cut.

Kennedy said reducing the millage rate to 6.52 per $1,000 in assessed value would save about $25 per $100,000 in assessed value. So a home assessed at $150,000 would see a savings about $37.50.

Budget Director Tom Greene said that would increase a projected deficit from $4.8 million to $8.6 million.

But projected deficits have a way of disappearing before the City Council approves a final budget in late September. At this point last year, the city was projecting a $4.4. million deficit but ended up with a small surplus.

Pinellas County Property Appraiser Pam Dubov told the city to expect a 6.5 percent increase in property values, but could easily rise as it has in recent years as the July 15 deadline for the mayor to submit his budget draws near. State tax revenue also usually rises during the summer months, especially utility taxes as air-conditioners work overtime.

“They always purposefully understate revenues. We go through this exercise each year,” said council member Karl Nurse during a break in the nearly seven-hour budget workshop at City Hall.

Nurse wants the city to spend more on fixing its aging sewers and funding pre-kindegarten services

About 30 percent of the city’s children don’t attend Pre-K classes and studies show that doing so helps them avoid jail and joblessness later in life, Nurse said.

Kriseman has his own idea on how to address at-risk youth. His budget highlights a $750,000 intensive outreach program to mentor, educate and train 100 boys and young men who have come into contact with the criminal justice system.

The “MBSK Intiative: St Pete Crossroads Champions” program represents the “first and most significant” installment of Kriseman’s promise to invest $1 million in at-risk youth after a rash of deadly shootings last fall, according to a budget memo.

Pre-K is important, said Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, representing the mayor at the meeting, but money isn’t always the answer.

“Intellectual capital...is huge,” she said, adding that the city can broker greater cooperation and efficiency among partners like the Juvenile Welfare Board, Head Start and the Early Learning Coalition.

Another potential flashpoint:  Personnel costs — salaries, benefits, insurance and new positions – for the city’s approximately 3,300 employees could increase by as much as 9 percent.

“That’s not a sustainable number,” Nurse said.

Kriseman’s budget includes at least $4.6 million reserved for raises. City workers, police officers and fire fighters are all negotiating new contracts this year.

If past budget cycles are any indication, city workers’ paychecks are likely to be a big part of public comment at the city’s Budget Open House on June 7 at the Coliseum, which begins at 6 p.m.

Kriseman held three summits in each of his first two years in office to gather public input. The Open House will be the only public forum scheduled this year, although residents can offer their opinions online.

Tomalin said the open house will be more interactive, allowing residents to meet with department heads and offer suggestions or air concerns.

Reducing the number of such gatherings didn’t have anything to do with the sometimes contentious atmosphere at last year’s summits where union members advocated for more pay and better working conditions, said Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby.

“It is one event, but there is a broader participation from key city staff and a real chance to interact with staff regarding the city budget and budget priorities,” Kirby said.

The public will still have two public hearings at City Hall on September 8 and 22 to offer their thoughts on the budget process before the City Council approves a new budget.

Council member Charlie Gerdes, who said he won’t run again for elected office (he was reelected to his seat in November), urged his colleagues to make tough choices and not pander to special interests.

“To make decisions about resources that are going to pay off eight years from now, not next year,” Gerdes said. “They’re not going to pay off for our next election. They’re going to pay off when the group of kids that’s growing up right now, goes to get a job, goes to make a career decision or goes to check a car door at three o’clock in the morning.”

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[Last modified: Tuesday, May 10, 2016 6:42pm]

    

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