ST. PETERSBURG — In an era of shrinking tax revenues, a new coalition of community groups wants to give residents a greater role in deciding how the city should spend, save or cut its budget.
The People's Budget Review is seeking 10,000 residents to complete a five-minute survey that characterizes their priorities — from public safety and parks to recreation and economic development. It's an ambitious plan, but one the group says is necessary to make the budget more accessible and relevant to the lives of the city's 245,000 residents.
"Only a fraction of a percent have a say in the allocation of our tax dollars," said Christian Haas, a graduate student at the University of South Florida and a member of the political grass roots organization Awaken Pinellas that is part of the coalition. "We need a new type of participation. It's our duty to make our voices heard."
Haas spoke Monday on the steps of City Hall along with other members of the coalition: the SEIU labor union, NAACP, League of Women Voters, Suncoast Sierra Club, the Council of Neighborhood Associations and Agenda 2010, a nonpartisan group of activists and experts trying to increase voter turnout.
The genesis of the new group came after the City Council approved Mayor Bill Foster's budget in September. The city union that represents 1,250 employees in blue-collar jobs in parks and recreation, sanitation and other services, faced another year of frozen wages and job losses. The union tried — and failed — to get a $500 bonus for employees that could be spent on local businesses.
The NAACP had been frustrated that a summer jobs program for youth wasn't getting more funding. Some CONA representatives complained of a bloated bureaucracy.
These different groups found common cause. The city's elected officials, they concluded, weren't hearing them. Town hall meetings weren't working because so few attend. Budget hearings came too late to change decisions.
"We decided to step out of the box and look outside of traditional methods," said Gypsy Gallardo, co-founder of Agenda 2010. "We knew all these groups wanted to speak. The Tea Party. The Occupy movement. Average residents. Let's give them a mechanism to do it."
The group decided to produce a campaign heavy on social media: Facebook, Twitter and a website (www.peoplesbudgetreview.org) where residents could log their views. The survey consists of about 30 questions. Its purpose is to explore the budget in different ways, reviewing possible cuts, but also consider new revenue sources such as higher property rates and tapping into reserves.
By the city's first public summit on April 25, the coalition hopes to have 2,000 completed surveys. By September's final hearing, its goal is 10,000. The only qualification is that respondents be city residents. As of late Monday, it had 28 responses.
"It's so important to see a group like this come together across racial and demographic lines," said Rev. Manuel Sykes, president of the city's NAACP chapter. "The budget isn't that complicated. We don't need algorithms to tell us what's fair. But we're not going to wait until election time to voice our objections. Government should be accessible."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org.