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Budget decisions made, but Web glitch blamed for meeting not being listed

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council staved off cuts in library hours and rejected proposed fee increases for next year's budget Thursday.

The decisions were made during a meeting that wasn't listed on the city website's schedule and drew only one member of the public — an oversight that ticked off neighborhood leaders who have been closely watching budget talks.

Council members had already persuaded Foster last week to keep open two city pools: Shore Acres and Jennie Hall. He will, at a cost of $206,000. They also told him they wanted to keep a fire engine and 11 firefighters that Foster had proposed eliminating. He agreed, but at a cost of nearly $1 million.

Earlier this week, the Pinellas County appraiser concluded that a drop in property taxes wouldn't be as bad as earlier projected. The recalculations added about $1.1 million to the city's coffers for next year. Foster said that would cover the two pools and the fire engine the council wanted back in the budget.

But council member Karl Nurse said Thursday that with the extra money, the city should try to restore some of the other cuts Foster proposed. By the end of the meeting, Foster and the council agreed to:

• Reject cuts in library hours, a cost of $64,000.

• Reject a 5 percent increase in play camp fees, a cost of $51,000 — but a savings of about $30 for parents.

• Adjust a proposed increase in the park fees for events in which the city sponsors an event with a group. Foster had proposed charging between $500 and $750 for three-day events. It was reduced to between $200 and $300.

• Keep a crime analyst position with the police department at a cost of $53,000.

Foster also fended off criticism that he was cutting too many services without taking a hard look at trimming salary expenses, especially those of his top administrators.

"I have resisted the rhetoric from (the Council of Neighborhood Associations)," Foster said. "But I don't know any one of my top administrators who doesn't work their butt off."

Foster was referring to CONA, a group of neighborhood leaders who had been meeting regularly with budget officials for the last few months to push for bigger salary cuts. But no CONA representatives knew of Thursday's meeting because the city website, under the heading of "weekly meeting schedule," didn't have the meeting listed. When the city's regular council meeting broke up before noon on Thursday, Foster and council members adjourned to meet in a smaller room to discuss the budget, leaving many CONA representatives watching from home and wondering what was up.

"I was disappointed to see that instead of holding the ... budget workshop in the City Council Chambers, where the cameras were already running, you decided to move it to Room 100," Jean Corsetti wrote in an e-mail to council chair Leslie Curran. "Was there anything discussed at this workshop that would be of interest to the public?"

A glitch kept the meeting from being listed when it was logged into the website last week, said Phyllis Coster, an administrative secretary who works in the city's marketing and communications department.

"We've been having problems with the system," Coster said. "I put it up on Friday afternoon. I don't know why it wasn't listed."

City Administrator Tish Elston sent an e-mail to reporters on Tuesday that included a memo to council announcing the meeting. But that wasn't distributed to the public. City Clerk Eva Andjujar said the media was distributed notification of the meeting on Friday as well.

According to City Attorney John Wolfe, the city complied with the state's public meetings law that requires notifying the public 24 hours in advance about the meeting of elected officials.

Fliers were available at City Hall alerting the public of the meeting. And those who clicked on the agenda on the web and scrolled past several pages to the bottom could find out about the meeting, where it was also listed.

But he conceded that it was missing from the web's Weekly Meeting Schedule.

"We had adequate notice," Wolfe said. "But it should have been on the meeting schedule."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

Budget decisions made, but Web glitch blamed for meeting not being listed 06/04/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 1:03am]

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