ST. PETERSBURG — The bleak economy is testing the limits of a city that prides itself on providing a good quality of life for its residents.
Libraries, pools and parks face drastic cuts that could limit the hours they are open or could close them altogether. The city's water resources department will consider rate increases this year to cover shortfalls. City landmarks like Sunken Gardens, the Mahaffey Theater, the Coliseum and the marina anticipate cutting back on upkeep, which could threaten the aesthetic appeal they need to succeed.
Even the police and fire departments, which have expenses that are considered the easiest to defend politically, are mulling cuts that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
This is what awaits Bill Foster as he enters his first budget season as mayor. He will weigh cuts big and small that cover a wide array of services that touch upon almost every aspect of city life.
Glimpses of the tough decisions ahead were sent to him last week by city department heads. It's been a grim annual ritual since the 1990s for St. Petersburg mayors to have departments propose cuts of varying degrees. Last year, Mayor Rick Baker asked departments to propose cuts of 5 percent, 7 percent and 10 percent. This year, Foster asked to review proposed cuts of 3 percent, 5 percent and 7 percent.
They are only proposed, however, and many won't be made. But they do provide the rookie mayor a vantage point from which to survey what's at stake in a 2011 budget that's expected to have a shortfall of more than $10 million.
"When Baker was mayor, we went through repeated budgets where we lowered the (tax rate) and cut service," said Goliath Davis, senior administrator of city development. "So we've already cut the fat. Now we're cutting into bone."
Many department heads warned that some reductions could create a vicious cycle, where services or maintenance cuts trigger further revenue problems for the city.
For instance, to meet a 3 percent reduction, the city's billing and collections department is proposing to lay off an employee who tracks down parking ticket scofflaws. But the $49,840 the city would save might be offset by lost revenue. The city currently has a 95 percent collection rate.
To meet a 5 percent reduction, the city would save $37,876 by cutting a parking enforcement officer. The problem with that? Fewer people to check the city's 1,400 parking meters in downtown and Treasure Island Beach. Full parking meters make tempting targets for thieves. If they aren't emptied out soon enough, the city will lose money to theft and malfunctions caused by excess coins.
The most dire cuts were proposed by police and fire departments.
Police Chief Chuck Harmon has suggested eliminating the five-officer DUI squad, along with 28 civilian employees if he's forced to cut 5 percent from his budget.
In fire, the department would sacrifice an entire engine and the five firefighters who ride it to make a 5 percent cut. The city's response rating could be a risk, which could mean higher insurance rates.
Yet the possibility Foster might take an ax to either police or fire is remote, considering that on last year's campaign trail he said he'd try to leave those services alone. He affirmed that goal this week.
But after last month's public backlash against Foster's cuts at the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, even fire Chief James Large isn't so sure.
"If you get the public outcry to save the pools, the libraries and the Boyd Hill rangers, then it'll be that much easier to cut firefighters," Large said. "It won't be until the city has a huge fire loss that people will say, 'That's what happens when you cut essential services.' "
Still, it's hard to distinguish what's essential and what's not when it comes to city services, Harmon said. Cutting one has a domino effect.
"When you cut pools and rec centers and libraries, you have more kids out on the street," Harmon said. "And we're not as efficient in dealing with kids as those programs are."
While Foster said he has immersed himself in the budget, he planned to review the proposed cuts for the first time Wednesday.
"I'm prepared for the worst," he said.
While he already has a list of priorities he wants to spare, he welcomes residents' opinions. In April, the first of three budget summits will be held. Each month, he hosts a town hall meeting that's open to everyone. And the Council of Neighborhood Associations has been meeting with administrators to discuss the budget. The public hearings that come later in the year are usually too late to matter, Foster said.
"The public needs to exercise its voice and come to these events," he said. "Get engaged. That's the only way we're going to hear what the public thinks is important in the budget."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8037.