ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman's election year budget got a mixed greeting Monday night from a large crowd that feared being left behind in a city on an economic roll.
"We've been fiscally responsible on how we've spent your money," Kriseman told a crowd of more than 100 at the Coliseum in downtown.
The mayor's budget for the upcoming fiscal year is a conservative one. No property tax cut. No splashy new initiatives. Still, he cautioned the crowd: "Tough decisions are always having to be made."
There were plenty of ideas, and some criticism, of those decisions. For nearly an hour, almost two dozen speakers addressed the mayor, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, City Council members Amy Foster, Ed Montanari, Karl Nurse and chairwoman Darden Rice and much of the city's senior staff.
More than a dozen sanitation workers asked the city to discontinue using surveillance cameras in garbage trucks, saying that recording them was unfair and a bad use of $200,000 in taxpayer money.
Other residents advocated for safer streets, voiced fears of gentrification, asked that more be spent to help the homeless and urged the city pay more attention to environmental issues — including a permanent fix to the city's sewage woes.
Midtown and its persistent poverty was also a topic raised by several speakers. The loss of Walmart in Tangerine Plaza and other closures were blamed on a lack of direction from City Hall.
"There was either no plan or a weak incremental plan that did not make a difference," said Larry Newsome, a developer involved in the failure of Tangerine Plaza and the closing of Sylvia's restaurant in the historic Manhattan Casino. He has been involved with Tangerine Plaza since before Kriseman took office and has repeatedly clashed with the mayor's administration.
In contrast to last year, when few residents showed up at the city's lone open house, this year's crowd was larger and included union rank-and-file, and members of the People's Budget Review advocacy group.
They skipped last year's event but showed up this year. They argued that the city needs to do more for poor and working-class residents. Affordable housing, early childhood education, fiscal literacy and extending a living wage to city contractors, temporary employees and part-time workers topped the list of the budget review's "New Deal for St. Pete."
The need is even more dire as the state and federal governments have retreated from urban issues, members said.
"We need to have substantive economic development without displacing residents," said Brother John Muhammad, a neighborhood activist who belongs to the budget review group.
Kriseman's cautious election year budget is his forth budget. It doesn't include any new big-ticket items, even though the city anticipates a large bump in expected property tax revenue, a projected 9.4 percent increase over last year.
And there is still work to do on the city's $249 million general fund budget (about $530 million overall including numerous enterprise funds). Even with flush property values poised to replenish city coffers, officials still project a $2.1 million deficit. Revenues may be up, but expenses have grown even faster.
That budget gap usually narrows as state revenue flows in the fall. But last year, for the first time in his tenure, Kriseman had to balance the city's budget by using about $400,000 from reserves.
This year had a different energy than last year's sparsely attended event. It's an election year with Kriseman facing a strong challenge from former mayor Rick Baker, who did not attend the meeting. The primary is Aug. 29.
City budget officials are asking residents to complete a one-question online survey listing their budget priorities.
The survey will be available through June 30.
Kriseman will deliver a finished product to council members on July 14. The City Council will hold two public hearings in September on the budget, taking a vote on it at the second meeting on Sept. 21.
The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
One recurring theme from residents: crumbling infrastructure. They didn't just mean the city's old and busted sewer system, which has released 200 million gallons of sewage since August 2015 and is now undergoing $304 million in repairs.
Residents also repeatedly complained about crumbling sidewalks, potholes and deteriorating public spaces. Council members agreed. "Sewers were just the canary in the coal mine," Foster said.
Some lamented the imbalance between a gleaming downtown with high-rise condo towers on the rise and neighborhoods whose streets and sidewalks have decayed.
"You guys need ... to make the rest of the city look good, too, " said Janet Wright. "Not just downtown."
Kriseman said he understood those concerns. He said the city's infrastructure problems have been building for years. Now it's time to pay the bill.
"It's coming due," the mayor said, "and we recognize that."