ST. PETERSBURG — The city is facing its fourth year of declining property tax revenue, setting the scene for another round of heated budget discussions and difficult cuts, Mayor Bill Foster said Thursday.
Property values are expected to drop by 10 percent, creating an $8.3 million hole in the budget. Rising city salaries could bring the total deficit to more than $12 million.
"It's going to come down to programs or staff," Foster told the council during a Thursday budget meeting. "It always does."
The estimated budget rollback follows a particularly dismal fiscal year, where city officials froze or cut the salaries of some non-union employees and trimmed Fire Department staffing levels in an effort to overcome an $18 million deficit in this year's $207 million general fund budget.
Patching up the 2011 budget with layoffs alone would equal about 160 positions, Budget Director Tim Finch said. The city has already eliminated 300 positions since 2001, he said.
At the start of Thursday's meeting, Foster urged the City Council not to get too carried away in its discussion of 2011 budget priorities.
"Don't talk about what you want," he said. "Talk about what you need."
Foster has asked city staff to review how to implement his campaign promise to adopt a service level budgeting process, which would require department managers to defend individual projected expenses. Currently, city officials generally base departmental budgets on prior expenses, adding any additional projected costs.
Foster wants at least five city departments to adopt service level budgeting this year to help unearth savings. Potential candidates: housing, neighborhood services, water and library departments. Police and fire would be exempt, he said.
Many council members asked Foster to protect recreation, public safety and job creation programs.
"Anything that is economic development, economic health, I think it is pretty obvious that is a top priority," said council member Karl Nurse.
To free up new dollars, council members suggested city staff eliminate or reduce annual subsidies earmarked for public buildings, such as the Mahaffey Theater, Port and Pier.
There was little talk of new funding initiatives.
Council member Wengay Newton recommended city staff rebid city contracts and push for better deals. Any savings could go toward a new year-round youth employment program and a teen recreation center, he said.
Council member Steve Kornell said Pinellas County's proposed recycling program could be implemented citywide at no cost. He also urged city staff to seek more grants.
Several council members also called on Foster to find money for a new kitchen at the Mahaffey Theater to give the performing arts center a competitive boost, as recommended in a recent independent analysis of the venue.
Foster said he plans to establish a task force to help guide the theater's future.
At this, several council members balked.
"I don't want to see another task force," said Chairwoman Leslie Curran. "I think we know what needs to be done."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.