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Mayor Baker and unions spar over budget and raises

ST. PETERSBURG — Union workers want the pay increase they were promised.

Mayor Rick Baker, however, wants to balance his budget without raising taxes or severely affecting services.

Both sides presented their arguments during a lengthy budget forum Thursday night that ended in terse disagreement.

Faced with a $12 million loss in property taxes, Baker plans to balance much of his $206 million operating budget through staff reductions and an across-the-board wage freeze.

He has told state officials the city is in a state of financial urgency and cannot afford pay increases as required by contracts with three city unions.

The measure would save the city $2.5 million, or 1 percent of its operating budget.

Since April, 148 positions have been slated for elimination. Employees must do without their promised pay raises, or 90 more positions could be at risk, Baker said.

Under Baker's proposed budget, union workers would not get the 2.5 pay increase they negotiated for in 2008. Police and fire union members, promised a raise of up to 6 or 7 percent, would lose more.

Critics of Baker's plan, however, said he is not considering all of his options.

Union officials urged Baker to dip into the city's savings. A fist full of reserve funds dedicated to various services has sat untouched for too long, opponents argued, collecting millions of dollars. One fund alone has nearly $20 million.

"It's an unfair labor practice to declare financial urgency when the city has money," said Michael Krohn, executive director of the Pinellas County police union.

Winthop Newton, president of the city's firefighters union, tried a different tactic.

"Every single one of you, I am looking you in the eyes," he told the City Council. "This is a contract. You need to honor it."

City Council members praised Baker's fiscal prudence Thursday.

But most members also called on Baker to honor the contracts and consider raiding one or several of the city's many reserve funds.

"It doesn't do us much good to sit with money in a fund for a rainy day," said council member Bill Dudley. "It's raining."

Baker urged the City Council to consider the long view.

Declining property values would likely not recover by January, when county officials determine property taxes, he said. Combined with soaring pension costs, next year's budget would likely be harder to balance, he said.

"We don't know for certain whether we are at the bottom of the hole," he said. "I am concerned for our city. My concern for the city makes me want to keep the reserves."

Still, there is other loose change arguably found in Baker's budget. About $3 million in excess revenue will be left over from the 2009 budget.

But Deputy Mayor Tish Elston said that money is off limits, too.

"The reason for not wanting to use the net revenues (savings from fiscal year 2009) is we would be using one-time revenues for recurring costs, thus creating a bigger problem for the following year's (2011) budget," Elston wrote in an e-mail Thursday morning.

Wages and benefits make up 70 percent of the city's operating budget.

Mayor Baker and unions spar over budget and raises 07/09/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 10, 2009 12:10am]
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