ST. PETERSBURG — As the city's property tax revenue has plummeted by $100 million in the past four years, city officials have rejected property tax hikes in favor of cutting back on services.
The city eliminated 220 positions. Library and pool hours were slashed. Park maintenance was cut back.
So it seemed like a breakthrough this year when Mayor Bill Foster conceded that city coffers are starved for cash.
"We're looking at every single method to cut costs," Foster told the City Council last week. "But we're getting to the point where it's kind of silly and we must have more revenue. There's no doubt about that."
That sentiment echoes a majority on the City Council that a new infusion of cash is needed to avoid further cuts that threaten the long-term prospects of St. Petersburg.
Yet as Foster holds his first public meeting on next year's $200 million budget at 6 p.m. today at the J.W. Cate Center on 22nd Avenue N, it's unclear if any new money will be identified to bridge an estimated shortfall of $13 million for a budget that begins Oct. 1.
Now in his third year in office, Foster has yet to identify a revenue source that he would support other than more targeted measures, such as doubling parking meter rates, raising parks and recreation fees, and imposing more fines for motorists who run red lights.
"The mayor needs to be a leader and say, 'This is what I think is the right thing to do,' " said council member Charlie Gerdes. "And he hasn't done that yet."
Gerdes is on a board that isn't filling the void.
By itself, the eight-member council has the legislative power to override Foster and decide on a new revenue source itself.
But the board hasn't found a consensus.
Three council members say the city hasn't finished cutting back or reorganizing city government to save money. Bill Dudley, Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton say they don't support tapping new revenue until they are satisfied that the city reached this threshold.
But none could identify what this threshold was.
"Once we get all the waste out of the system, then I'd be interested in getting more revenue," said Newton, who worries that the city's police budget has become too bloated.
"A lot of it has to do with the pain threshold," Dudley said. "I'm not sure if anyone knows where that is."
Kornell thinks the city can save money first through innovative solutions, such as heating its pool water with solar tanks.
That leaves a bare majority of five who say they are willing to look at increased revenue. And of that bunch, Jeff Danner said he first wants to have long-term planning that can redefine city government. He says he's reluctant to approve a new revenue source without having a say in establishing this new version of government, which could infringe upon the powers of the strong mayor.
"If the mayor's going to leave it to the council to find a revenue generator, then I want a say on the front end," Danner said. "If I support a property tax increase, I don't want him to then cut housing and economic development."
Midway through the budget process that ends in September, Foster and council members are discussing three types of revenue increases.
A flat monthly rate between $5 and $10 a month could raise up to $11 million and be levied on all properties in the city to pay for fire service.
Another fee, which would charge a flat rate between $1 to $4 a month, could be assessed on city properties for street light maintenance and raise up to $4.5 million.
Increases to the property tax rate could be barely felt by the average homeowner and raise substantial sums of money. For instance, if the city raised its rate so the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $31 more a year, it would raise $5.7 million in revenue.
Yet finding enough support for any of these has been elusive.
Foster's staff is pushing two revenue sources — an increase in property tax rates and a new fire assessment fee — that the mayor has previously opposed. He still says he doesn't support a property rate hike because of inequities between long-term residents who pay less and new residents who pay more.
The lack of leadership goes both ways, council member Karl Nurse said.
"There's a clear consensus that we have to close this gap, because it's all been cuts these past five years," Nurse said. "But we're not getting direction from the mayor or the council chair. Without that, I don't know how we can reach consensus on how to do it."
Unlike previous years, when Foster's budget meetings drew a mere handful of residents, people are watching.
A coalition of neighborhood groups, civic groups like the NAACP, and unions are advocating for a different approach. They plan to attend today's budget summit to voice opposition to more cuts.
Dubbed the People's Budget Review, the group released results from 2,000 surveys on Tuesday that showed residents are willing to pay more for city services.
Results showed that 71 percent said they opposed further cuts and that 67 percent supported an increase in the property tax rate.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]