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New St. Petersburg budget cuts 51 jobs, $2M

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Baker proposed eliminating 51 jobs and nearly $2-million in city services from next year's budget Tuesday, citing the impact of statewide property tax cuts on city revenue.

The layoffs and budget reductions will affect every city department, including the library system, recreation departments and mayor's office.

But despite complaints from city officials that Amendment 1 would further cripple local government after last year's state mandated property tax reductions, Baker said the more austere budget would likely have little to no impact on services.

Not one city employee will be fired. At least 32 of the eliminated positions were already vacant, and the remaining 19 employees are expected to either retire or be placed in new jobs.

Overall, the proposed $591-million budget actually grew by $2-million from this year as a result of increased costs for fuel and other expenses.

And the budget includes nearly $700,000 in new dollars for cultural organizations, tax exemptions for small business owners and funding for Pinellas Hope, a tent city operated by Catholic Charities, Diocese of St. Petersburg.

"We are always trying to maintain the same levels of service or do better," said Baker. "We are doing everything we can to make that happen."

The city kept its property tax rate at $5.9125 for every $1,000 dollars of taxable assessed value.

City officials said they managed to avoid massive budget cuts or increased property taxes by planning ahead.

Since Baker took office, more than 132 government jobs have been eliminated. The additional 51 eliminated positions brings the city's total annual work force savings to nearly $10-million, or about $2-million more than St. Petersburg's $7.6-million expected loss in property taxes next year because of Amendment 1.

"This government is in a very fortunate position and managed to prepare itself for Amendment 1," said Mike Connors, the internal services administrator.

Among Baker's new proposals is one to do away with a tax on small businesses. Eliminating the employee tax for businesses with 30 or fewer employees would help 4,700 local businesses, Baker said, saving each between $12 and $360 a year, depending on the number of employees ($12 per employee).

The exemption will cost the city $240,000, but Baker said he was more interested in sending a message to small business owners.

"Small businesses are hurting," he said. "We want them to know St. Petersburg wants them to thrive."

Baker will also set aside $100,000 for cultural grants and $295,000 for Pinellas Hope.

Among the cuts were $4,628 for weekend supervision at Fossil Park's skate park, $535,000 in subsidies for Tropicana Field, the Mahaffey Theater and Sunken Gardens, and $10,000 from the City Council's budget.

On Tuesday, some City Council members, who must approve the budget, tentatively expressed support for Baker's reductions.

"Given what we had to cut out of the budget, I think the mayor and staff have done a pretty good job of doing that as painlessly as possible," said council member Jeff Danner. "It's always tough to lose 51 positions … but this is what people wanted when they voted for Amendment 1."

The council will hold a budget workshop July 10 followed by a 6 p.m. public forum that day.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

New St. Petersburg budget cuts 51 jobs, $2M 06/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 7:03pm]
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