SAFETY HARBOR — A standing-room-only crowd fidgeted through city commissioners' discussion of Safety Harbor's upcoming $20-million operating budget: how much to tax homeowners, how deeply to cut city spending.
Most people just wanted to talk about a fruit stand.
"We can never get anyone here when it comes to millage rate and how much you pay in taxes," said Mayor Andy Steingold, who tried to encourage residents to opine on the budget.
The people groaned. Some laughed.
At Tuesday night's meeting, city commissioners spoke directly to the audience to explain the budget process. At times, they won some limp applause. A few folks chimed in on the discussion, but not many. And not everyone lasted through the two-hour conversation about all those numbers.
Eventually, the commission addressed whether the Main Street Market should be allowed to stay on its corner downtown.
The fruit-and-vegetable stand's owners pleaded for an indefinite extension of their 90-day permit. The market won temporary approval from commissioners in April to operate from leased space at 233 Main St., an empty parcel where development plans died when the economy soured.
"We are asking to stay long-term," said market co-owner Bill Bailey. "We feel we bring something to the town."
By keeping the stand open, Bailey hopes to save money to open a cafe and meat and seafood market in an existing building at 509 Main St., another long-vacant spot. He said he has put down a deposit to rent the space and is planning renovations, but he had no timeline for completion.
Steingold was skeptical that the fruit stand would ever move to a brick-and-mortar store, saying its owners were using temporary permits to make the market a permanent fixture downtown.
"It's kind of like, you got the foot in the door. Now you want more," he said.
He worried an extension would set a precedent for letting other vendors set up around the city. But the fruit stand's supporters saw no problem with that.
Patrons paint the Main Street Market as another bit of small-town charm — an outdoor community hub that promotes healthy eating and sets an example for neighborhood children amid a stretch of alcohol-selling businesses. They say it's a cheaper, more convenient alternative to shopping at grocery store chains, with proprietors who home-deliver produce when loyal customers get sick.
"Now, I can walk and get my fresh fruits and vegetables," said longtime Safety Harbor resident Valerie Petree Nolte. "This type of a storefront ... really fits what we want in Safety Harbor."
The commissioners appeared impressed by the turnout.
"What you can tell from the crowd," said City Commissioner Cliff Merz, "is it's not the support of a fruit stand. It's this specific fruit stand seems to be exceptional."
The commission voted unanimously to grant the fresh market a nine-month extension, with a pledge to consider modifying the requirements for the fruit stand and similar businesses to operate in town.
That was met with raucous clapping.
Oh, and that budget? Commissioners did not raise the tax rate, keeping it at last year's rate. They moved forward with a street light fee for homeowners whose properties are along streets with lights. They tentatively approved about $175,000 in spending cuts, but declined to make reductions that would affect city personnel.
The budget and tax rate will be adopted after a second public hearing on Sept. 19.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.