ST. PETERSBURG — City leaders sat before the crowd of more than 75 people and listened. The residents marched one at a time to a microphone, each eager to tell the mayor and City Council members how they wanted their tax dollars spent.
Some wanted improved public transportation. Others mentioned curbside recycling. More than a few people spoke of social issues affecting the city.
The meeting, held Wednesday evening at the Willis S. Johns Recreation Center, was the first of three public forums at which residents can suggest to elected leaders how to shape the city's budget.
Mayor Bill Foster is tasked with formulating a budget for the fiscal year that begins in October. The city already faces a $2.8 million budget deficit this year. But before anything is decided, Foster said, he wanted the residents to have their say.
"If I had come to you with my proposed budget without first asking your input, it wouldn't be fair," Foster said. "This is your budget."
Before the meeting, members of the People's Budget Review, a coalition of neighborhood groups, civic organizations and union members, distributed the results of a survey of 500 city residents. The survey asked what people liked about the city and what they'd like to change.
Parks, weather, the waterfront, downtown, the small-town feel, the arts and walkability all ranked among the most liked. Economic and social issues and changes in city government topped a list of wanted changes.
Some speakers cited specific problems with city services. For Vince Cocks, recent reports of "browning out" fire department vehicles were a cause for alarm.
"We … demand adequate and honest fire department funding," Cocks said to applause.
Brownouts, in which emergency units are kept idle for several hours or even a full day, are a controversial tool that local fire stations have used to save money rather than pay for overtime. Talk of deeper budget cuts prompted fears of more brownouts, or possible layoffs, putting certain neighborhoods at risk. Some City Council members were unaware of the practice until recently.
Others spoke on behalf of city employees, who have not seen a pay raise in several years.
"We dig the ditches. We take out the trash," said Dennis Coley, a mechanic with the city's fleet maintenance department. "We're the ones who keep things going."
Two more budget forums are scheduled in the next two months before the City Council meets to adopt a budget in September. The forums will be at 6 p.m. May 15 at the J.W. Cates Center, 5801 22nd Ave. N, and 6 p.m. June 12 at the Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S.