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Budget season is upon St. Petersburg again, and a new round of cuts are pondered

ST. PETERSBURG — It has become a depressing annual ritual in this time of recession.

Right about this time of year, city officials start assessing how much revenues are going to decline and how big the deficit will be for next year's budget.

On Thursday, the City Council met with Mayor Bill Foster to consider ways to close a projected $12 million gap in the budget year that won't begin until October.

Foster has previously said he's considering about 30 layoffs across the board. Other cuts will be pondered for a $200 million budget that pays for everything from fire and police to parks and recreation and libraries.

"Everything is on the table," he said. "It's going to be a very challenging budget year."

As it was last year. And the year before that. And on and on.

Council member Herb Polson fretted that the city has already resorted to every available trick to cut expenses without causing pain.

This latest round of cuts will be the severest yet, he said. He proposed the city buy its streetlights — which are owned by Progress Energy.

He figures the city can borrow the money, and recoup the $4.5 million it pays every year in rent to the utility.

But even he said that might be a stretch.

Other proposals he offered might be more doable, like forcing some administrators to retire early and eliminating a number of management jobs. He also wants to look at a major restructuring of the city's pension.

"It's a national problem," Polson said. "We have to do that or we will find ourselves upside down."

Council Chairman Jim Kennedy concurred and had already planned to ask city financial advisers to give a report on the pension system.

"I'd like to avoid as much as possible layoffs," said council member Steve Kornell. "And I don't think anyone who retires after 30 years working with the city should retire into poverty."

More often than not, council members talked about what not to cut.

Bill Dudley called public safety expenses, police and fire, a "sacred cow."

"It's the duty of government to take care of its citizens," Dudley said.

"We shouldn't scrimp."

It's early in the process, and there are numerous workshops to go before Foster proposes a budget in June. Foster said it will be difficult, but not as bad as it could be.

"Last year, people were inconvenienced, but didn't see a loss in programming," Foster said. "Those days are over."

Still, the city had a strong AA bond rating with investors, meaning it's not as heavily in debt as other cities.

By that standard, Foster said, "We're doing pretty darn good."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Budget season is upon St. Petersburg again, and a new round of cuts are pondered 01/20/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 20, 2011 10:12pm]
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