ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council opted Monday against using a $2 million surplus to shore up community groups devastated by the recession.
Instead, the council followed Mayor Rick Baker's policy recommendation and stowed the savings away in its growing reserves.
The decision came after two hours of public discussion, as three dozen speakers pleaded for city leaders to use the money to help those hurt hardest by the economy: homeless families, small-business owners, social service agencies and arts organizations.
More than 130 people attended the meeting.
"Right now it is raining unemployment, it is raining homelessness, it is raining foreclosures, it is raining business closures," said Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP branch. "We have problems that suggest the rainy days are here now. I urge you to put these monies in the community now, please."
A total of $6.88 million went unused in the 2009 budget. State law requires that the city come up with a plan for the money by Sunday.
Most of the surplus was put back into city programs. For example, the city set aside $960,000 for new fire equipment and $750,000 for energy conservation projects.
Baker's staff asked the council to save another $2 million in its reserves fund as part of the administration's long-standing practice of rolling over unused cash into its reserves.
The money is being saved to better brace the city for a future catastrophe, said budget director Tim Finch.
Council members gave different reasons for supporting the measure.
"I know it would feel a lot better to say, 'All these social service agencies, the arts can have money to help their causes,' but when I look at what my job is … it is to look at the economics of the city, the reserves of the city," said council member Jim Kennedy. "It is important to set sound fiscal policy."
Council member Leslie Curran said it would be unfair to give the cash to community groups after City Hall laid off 30 or so employees this year to balance its budget.
"If we wanted to do something with that $2 million that was fair, we could hire everyone back," she said.
Council Chairman Jeff Danner cited the absence of a firm proposal.
"I have a problem with: 'Here's $2 million. Let's figure out how to spend it,' " he said. "I just feel that process is not the way to go."
Council members, however, did agree to discuss funding for local stimulus projects at a future committee meeting.
Monday's vote was a blow to council members Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse, who rallied community groups and leaders to attend the meeting and speak out against Baker's budget proposal.
"In our lifetime this is the toughest it has ever been," Nurse said.
Newton accused the city of hoarding cash.
"This is the taxpayers' money," he said. "They overtaxed the people. That's why they have reserves."
Cristina Silva can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8846.