ST. PETERSBURG — Facing attacks about his fiscal record as a member of the City Council, Republican Bill Foster tried to add context to the issue at a mayoral forum Friday.
"Under my tenure, with the 10 budgets I passed, we lowered the millage rate over 2 mills. And we were able to reduce the work force by approximately 300 employees — half of which were mid-level management," Foster told Leadership St. Pete alumni at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.
"But we did raise taxes, on average, less than 3.5 percent per year," Foster said. "This was during a time after 9/11, after Hurricane Katrina, when we were motivated to build up our reserves. We were also faced with raising property insurance rates, health insurance rates, pension contributions that had to be made, and the cost of doing business in the city of St. Pete increased as you all know. … We were able to reduce the millage rate, property values were going up, and (as a result) we netted approximately 3 to 3.5 percent per year in the growth of the budget."
Much has been made about the runup in local government spending during the real estate boom in the early 2000s. The problem, or at least the perception of a problem, ultimately led the Legislature and voters to approve significant changes to state property tax laws.
That history didn't seem to match Foster's recollection when it comes to growth of the city's budget. So we decided to examine his math, focusing on the claim, "We netted approximately 3 to 3.5 percent per year in the growth of the budget."
The city of St. Petersburg has several budgets that function somewhat independently of each other. For politicians, the word "budget" is often narrowed to mean one of two things:
• The general fund budget, which pays for police and fire service and most of the government services citizens don't specifically pay for somehow else.
• The city's operating budget, which includes the general fund budget along with budgets for other departments that fund themselves through user fees (water, sewer, trash).
After making his comment Friday, we asked Foster what budget he used for his calculation. He said the general fund. To be safe, we checked both.
We took the approved budget expenditures from Foster's first year on the council in 1998 — $139.76 million in the general fund and $388.41 million in the operating fund — and calculated for 3.5 percent yearly growth, as Foster suggested.
If he's right, expenditures in 2007 — Foster's last year on council — should be $190.5 million in the general fund and $529.4 million in the operating fund.
From 1998 to 2007, the city's total operating fund budget grew by about 4.7 percent annually. The city's general fund budget grew faster — about 5.4 percent annually.
Converted into dollars, the difference between Foster's recollection and reality is significant. The city's total operating budget sat at about $589 million as part of the budget passed in 2007. If the budget had grown at 3.5 percent, residents would have spent $60 million less in 2007 alone.
The city's general fund was about $224 million in 2007. Residents would have saved about $34 million in 2007 if spending had been capped to 3.5 percent.
We also checked property tax collections in the city to see if that could be what Foster was talking about. But those numbers show an even larger annual increase. Property tax revenue, which was $52.3 million in 1998, was $100.6 million in 2007 — a growth of 7.5 percent a year.
And to check our methodology, we reached out to Brad Kamp, a University of South Florida economics professor who walked us through the math.
Likewise, St. Petersburg budget director Tim Finch confirmed the budgeted expenditures for the years in question.
We also checked Foster's claims that the city's tax rate was cut by 2 mills and the city's work force was cut by about 300 employees in his 10 years.
The city's tax rate from 1998 to 2007 dropped 1.6485 mills from 7.561 mills to 5.9125, according to city budget documents. For every mill, property owners pay $1 in city property taxes for every $1,000 of taxable property value.
The number of full- and part-time employees, meanwhile, dropped from 3,887 in 1998 to 3,741 in 2007 — a decrease of 146, budget officials said.
Foster, in explaining Friday how he arrived at his numbers, said: "I could be wrong. I went to school to be a lawyer, not a mathematician."
Foster tried to make a point that the city of St. Petersburg saw modest budget growth in his time on City Council. And we can't judge that. But we can look at the numbers he cited.
Foster said the city's budget grew less than 3.5 percent a year from 1998-2007, when it actually grew quite faster than that. Depending on what budget you study, the rate of annual growth was between 4.7 and 5.4 percent, a difference that created as much as a $60 million budget gap in 2007 alone. We rate Foster's claim False.