ST. PETERSBURG — Fewer than 20 residents showed up at Mayor Bill Foster's first budget forum Wednesday night, a turnout that fell far short of expectations for an event where 120 aluminum folding chairs were set up at the J.W. Cate Recreation Center.
Foster hopes to use the forums to deflect much of the criticism that is sure to come as he cuts costs to plug a hole of about $14 million in next year's budget. The forums give residents a chance to tell Foster and City Council members which services they appreciate and which ones they could do without. Two more are planned, on May 19 and June 23 — an opportunity, Foster says, for residents to express their needs before public budget hearings begin in late summer and early fall.
"By the time of the public hearings when people line up to complain, most of the heavy lifting is done," Foster said. "And by then, if they didn't show up at these meetings, I don't want to hear from them. I will want to hear from you because you chose to be part of the process."
Although about 20 showed, only five spoke. It lasted more than an hour. Topics included recreation fees, libraries, how the city bids contracts and take-home vehicles.
"Only the mayor, police and fire chiefs should have them," said Diane Nicola, a Shore Acres parent who had campaigned for Foster.
Aside from the five full-time park ranger positions he eliminated at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in February, Foster hasn't announced what cuts he'll make and how many layoffs they will include. He said he's still reviewing options and meets regularly with administrators to consider cuts. He has asked each department head to submit budgets with cuts of 3 percent, 5 percent and 7 percent.
The big date will be May 21, when Foster submits a budget draft to the City Council during an all-day workshop at City Hall.
"That's where the rubber hits the road," said budget director Tim Finch.
Until then, Foster is keeping his plans for cuts under wraps. He's trying to soften the blow of plummeting property values. In 2007, property taxes raised more than $103 million for the city. Next year, those same taxes will bring in $72 million.
"Tell us what you need," Foster told residents Wednesday. "Don't tell us what you want, because I need to cut $14 million."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com.