ST. PETERSBURG — If council members are to get a proposed budget from Mayor Bill Foster for 2013 that's balanced in the next six months, they'll need first to plug a projected deficit of $10 million.
And that shortfall, which is in the city's $199 million general fund that pays for personnel costs, is only that much if there's no increase in operating expenses, health or pension increases — which isn't likely.
"So the $10 million deficit could be a larger number," said council member Jim Kennedy.
Still, Foster said during a meeting last week that he's hopeful the decline in property values will slow this year. This year's revenues are expected to produce $30 million less than those in 2008. Even with that possible silver lining, however, he repeated his mantra as council members ponder what services and departments get funding and which ones get cut.
"Don't tell us what you want, tell us what you need," Foster told them.
It's early in the budget season, so council members didn't get too specific. Some mentioned that this could be the year to seriously talk about raising the property tax rate, which hasn't been increased in more than 22 years. A fire fee will be discussed in the future. Such a fee would impose a flat charge, for example, $5 on every property in the city to raise money for firefighting.
Foster doesn't support the fee and could always veto it, meaning the board would need six votes. It doesn't help the fire fee cause that newcomer Charlie Gerdes, who is open to raising the property tax rate, opposes it. Bill Dudley, who identifies himself as a fiscal conservative, said he doesn't support raising fees until he's convinced that the city has made all the necessary cuts. Steve Kornell objects to administrative costs in establishing a fee.
Meanwhile, council members expressed support for new or existing programs that need funding in the future.
For instance, Karl Nurse, said he wants the city to buy up foreclosed homes so they're not just sitting empty, hurting the property values of surrounding homes. Meanwhile, the city's code enforcement needs more funding, he said.
Wengay Newton said he'd oppose any cuts to parks and recreation programs because they occupy the time of children who might otherwise be getting into trouble.
"If we start cutting there, we'll need more police officers in the street," he said.
Kornell said the city should focus more on economic development and try to nurture locally grown companies. Jeff Danner said the city should continue funding the looper shuttle that ferries people along Central Avenue and reminded council members that the city's homeless needs hadn't gone away just because many of the more visible ones now reside out of sight in a shelter.
"Just because there's not 200 people sleeping out in our downtown doesn't mean they aren't there," Danner said.
The city will have three budget summits, where residents can suggest cuts and spending to Foster and council members. They will be held on April 25, May 16 and June 13. Locations have yet to be determined.
The council will hold two public hearings on the budget in September.
The budget goes into effect on Oct. 1.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]