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St. Pete Council approves budget, but raises concerns about priorities, direction

ST. PETERSBURG — Emotions ran hot Thursday night as final attempts to include additional spending for next year failed before the City Council approved Mayor Bill Foster's $557.7 million budget.

Council member Karl Nurse got visibly upset as his request to add $271,000 to renovate 76 units at Jamestown Townhomes, the city's only public housing complex, was being rejected.

"This is a government with $250 million in reserves," Nurse said, his voice rising to a shout. "To pretend we don't have the money is pure crap … It's grossly unfair for us to put this on the backs of the residents."

Nurse wanted to spend the money to fix old toilets, air conditioning and flooring, which in some units haven't been replaced in more than 20 years. Costs could later be paid back in rent the city isn't receiving now because 29 of the units are vacant, Nurse said.

While Council members Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton supported Nurse's request, the other council members sided with Foster, who said he'd want to hold off budgeting renovations until work crews get a better sense of how much repairs will cost the complex, which is about a mile north of Tropicana Field.

"We won't forget about Jamestown," said Foster. "We'll be working on it all year."

The council voted 7-1 to approve Foster's budget, with only Newton dissenting. In doing so, members kept the city's property tax rate at $5.9125 per $1,000 of taxable value, the same rate it has been since 2007. Because of a continued drop in property values, keeping the rate the same amounts to a total tax cut of about $4.8 million from this year, or 6.7 percent.

To make ends meet, the city is cutting 41 full-time positions and 18 part-time workers, mostly through attrition. Library and pool hours have been reduced. Fire code inspection fees will go from $25 to $50. Parking meter rates will climb from 75 cents to $1 an hour. Red light cameras are anticipated to bring in nearly $900,000.

The budget goes into effect Oct. 1.

While final budget hearings typically are rubber-stamp affairs with little drama, Nurse's show of emotion seemed to highlight a concern among some council members that the city needs a different approach to weather the economic downturn.

"There's a lot of angst here tonight," said council member Herb Polson. "It reminds me that on more than one occasion, we've heard people say, 'I'm not upset with you if you decide to raise our taxes.' Perhaps (next year), when it's not a (city) election year, people will be more apt to talk about it, and we won't have an emotional outburst."

Leslie Curran said the city can't continue cutting expenses and services without raising revenue.

"What we really need to do is start deciding what this city will do to raise revenue, what will we do with economic development more than we're doing now, what will we do to assist small businesses," she said. "What are we doing to increase the revenues to the city besides raising fees?"

ST. PETERSBURG – By a unanimous vote, the City Council approved spending $100,000 to help a company build a family shelter at the northeast corner of 4th Avenue South and 5th Street South. NRP Group needs the money as a local grant in its application for $1.6 million in state tax credits, said the company's vice president, Kurt Kehoe. The $15 million project, which will be managed by the YWCA, needs the credits to be viable, he said. It would build 80 units that would charge low rents for homeless families, an extension of the city's Safe Harbor shelter, which opened earlier this year. Kehoe said the credits won't be awarded until next year. His company is buying the land, which is a parking lot, from Times Publishing Co., which publishes the St. Petersburg Times. The sale won't close until the credits are awarded, Kehoe said. Terms of the pending sale were not disclosed.

The City Council unanimously voted to spend $511,500 for new police equipment. The city will buy a $228,796 armored rescue vehicle, $84,660 worth of ballistic shields, $36,300 for inspection mirrors and thermal cameras, $52,183 for light-weight protective vests, and $109,560 for weapon lights. The splurge was in response to recommendations made by a task force reviewing the shooting deaths of three St. Petersburg officers earlier this year. Police Chief Chuck Harmon said the newer vests will encourage officers to wear vests, something they aren't required to do. About half the police wear vests on duty now, but 99 percent said they will with the lighter vests, he said. The money comes out of the city's forfeiture account, which is the revenue collected from ill-gotten property in crimes.

St. Pete Council approves budget, but raises concerns about priorities, direction 09/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 23, 2011 11:47am]

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