ST. PETE BEACH — In the first of two required votes, the City Commission decided Wednesday to raise property taxes 15 percent to balance its proposed budget and pay for sharply increased employee pension costs.
The 4-1 vote (only Vice Mayor Marvin Shavlan was opposed) followed a public hearing in which residents both strongly opposed and supported the move.
"This city has been behind the eight ball for a long time," said Paul Pfister, president of the North Beach Civic Association. "If you are going to live in paradise, you have got to pay for it."
Rosemary Manning agreed, saying "Band-Aids just don't work anymore."
Other residents urged the commission to "exercise fiscal responsibility" by keeping the current rate.
"The timing is wrong in the current economy," said resident Dave Striebich. "Raising the (tax rate) on citizens is the wrong thing to do."
Resident Bill Pyle accused the commission of being "in the pockets" of wealthy developers.
"You should all be ashamed of yourselves," Pyle said.
Deborah Scheckner urged the commission to lobby the state for a share of the hotel bed tax to help pay for increasing operating costs that in part support the city's tourism industry.
City Manager Mike Bonfield said that the tax increase will provide more than $800,000 in additional revenue to fund a budget that assumes the city will continue operating its own Police Department.
That may not be the case, however, if voters approve a charter change in November that will give the commission the ability to close the department and contract instead with the Sheriff's Office.
Detective Sean McAuley, speaking for the police union, urged voters to support the switch to the sheriff.
"A majority of our members support changing the city charter," he said, adding that the union members have the "utmost confidence" that the Sheriff's Office will provide an equal or better level of service.
Shavlan argued that he believes voters will approve the charter change and therefore the city did not need to budget for operating the Police Department.
"You would be gambling with the city budget," responded Commissioner Jim Parent.
Other commissioners agreed, saying they if they followed Shavlan's advice and then voters reject the charter change, the city would not have enough money to run the department.
In other action, the commission unanimously approved eliminating the city's coastal construction line and adopting the state line, which is less restrictive.
The result, according to Mayor Steve McFarlin, is that about 2.3 acres of beach will be eligible for development, not the 30 acres previously claimed by Pyle.
Pyle, in turn, again accused the commission of serving the interests of hotel owners.
"It is all about big money from your big hotel patrons," Pyle said.
"If you want to call yourselves a green city, you protect the environment and the beach," Scheckner said.