ST. PETERSBURG — In Bill Foster's first two years as mayor, public meetings on the budget have been lonely affairs, where staff members outnumber the residents who show up.
Not so Wednesday night.
A standing-room only crowd of nearly 100 people crammed into the J.W. Cate Center on 22nd Avenue N to deliver a message to Foster and City Council members that suggests a turning point in St. Petersburg's history.
It's time to raise property taxes.
"Stop nickel-and-diming our residents on the way to balancing the budget," said Aaron Dietrich, a Historic Kenwood resident. "We have a mechanism in place that you need to use. It's called the property tax."
St. Petersburg has gone at least 22 years without raising the rate, which dropped from $9.25 per $1,000 of taxable value in 1990 to its current rate of $5.9125.
But those who depend on city services said the rate needs to go back up.
"People are cutting back their own budgets, where they're choosing between paying for the Internet or eating," said Ernie Coney, president of the Friends of the Johnson Branch Library on 18th Avenue S. "Nobody has a problem with millage going up. They need libraries to stay open so they can use computers, which they need to survive."
St. Petersburg's property tax rate has been the same since 2007 despite an economic downturn that continues to drain city coffers. Property tax revenue has fallen a total of $100 million during that time, causing the tax to bring in $30 million less a year than it did in 2007.
The city has handled the shortfall mostly with cuts and limited fee increases and fines.
More than 220 jobs have been lost. Hours for pools, parks and libraries have been cut. Parking meter rates have doubled. A program to fine those who run red lights has been launched.
But residents Wednesday night overwhelming said they support paying more.
Brett Page said his property taxes have plummeted $2,000 a year since he bought a home in Holiday Park in 2005.
"I'm more than willing to pay what's necessary to keep the city running," he said. "When I drive along 22nd Avenue, I don't want to see the grass 3 feet tall. I want police and fire."
Many of the nearly 30 people who spoke Wednesday wore buttons with the name People's Budget Review on them. It's a coalition of neighborhood groups, civic organizations and union members that is surveying city residents about the budget.
On Tuesday, the group released the results from 2,000 surveys that showed 71 percent of the respondents opposed any further cuts to services and that 67 percent favored an increase to the property tax rate.
"We think these results are significant," said Lou Brown III, political director of the St. Petersburg Chapter of the NAACP. "They should provide food for thought in the budget process."
Only two people voiced opposition to raising tax rates.
"For those who are retired like me, I'm on a fixed income," said Ken Staggs, 73. "Taxes are plenty high enough."
But Georgia Johnson, who lives in the Perry Bayview neighborhood off 34th Street, said the city needs to invest more in providing education and training to children.
"Prevention rather than incarceration," she said. "Think about the future."
Facing an estimated $13 million shortfall, Foster and council members have already concluded that they need to find more revenue. But they haven't agreed on how to do so.
They are currently discussing three ways to increase cash flow: a property tax rate increase, a new flat fee between $5 and $10 a month on properties to cover firefighting expenses, or a fee between $1 and $4 a month to pay for street light maintenance.
Foster has opposed rate increases and the fire fee in the past. Council members don't agree on which of the three they'd support.
Wednesday's crowd appeared to have made an impression on council members. Charlie Gerdes said he was "energized" by the discussion. Wengay Newton said he was "elated" by the turnout. Karl Nurse concluded that "the public is way ahead of us."
Even the council's most fiscally conservative member, Bill Dudley, seemed moved by the pleas.
"I heard you loud and clear," he said. "There comes a point when you can't cut anymore. And I don't want my name associated with being the one who pushed us down the chute."
Mayor Foster thanked the people who attended the meeting but said he would hold off on making any recommendations until a series of similar public meetings end in June.
"This was our opportunity to hear your vision," he said.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]