ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster's administrators have already come up with $8.2 million in cuts and higher fees to plug a $12 million hole in next year's budget.
The sweeping proposals largely exempt parks and recreation programs, but do require cuts from typically sacred departments like police and fire. The suggested cuts include the elimination of at least 27 jobs, including eight in upper management.
"We are looking at consolidating some departments, eliminating some positions, taking advantage of retirements," Foster said. "I'm making sweeping changes in response to the public's observation that we always seem to cut front-line employees."
To close the remaining $3.8 million gap, Foster is seeking help from city residents. He's holding a series of budget forums with hopes that the city's 250,000 residents will have ideas for cuts.
"I've cut as far back as I can on staff reductions," Foster said. "What we have to do next is program elimination. I want to see what the public's suggestions are."
But if the first forum Wednesday night is any indication, Foster may not get much help. Only 17 residents showed up at Willis S. Johns Recreation Center. Four spoke.
One speaker, a Realtor who owns property in St. Petersburg but lives in Gulfport, said the city shouldn't pay for new infrastructure, just maintain what's already built. Another resident stressed the importance of arts funding. A third speaker said he wants libraries to open on Sunday. The final speaker said the city's on the right track by eliminating top administrative jobs.
Foster and his staff are still working on the 2012 budget, which goes into effect in October and has a $12 million deficit because of the continued decline in property values. Although it's not as bad as the $14 million deficit the city faced with this year's budget, there's less to cut.
"In order to get to $12 million, it's not just cutting a little bit here and a little bit there," said council member Herb Polson. "It's going to be something huge. Do you want to decrease your code enforcement? Your libraries? This is not going to be a pleasant situation."
Shortly before Wednesday's meeting, Foster unveiled his plan, which could change by the time the budget is finalized in September.
So far, Foster proposes $705,000 in cuts for the Police Department, including the elimination of four non-sworn officer jobs, an information technology manager who is retiring, a canine training specialist, a fleet manager and a polygrapher. Police Chief Chuck Harmon said the duties from the jobs will be performed by existing staffers, and there should be no diminished services.
Harmon said salary cuts make up about $400,000 in savings. The red-light camera program, which could start by mid July, is projected to cost $1.4 million. But tickets are expected to pay those costs and produce net revenue of $300,000.
The Fire Department faces $612,000 in cuts, with about half that coming from reduced overtime. Under one scenario, Chief James Large said, seven positions would be eliminated, including five that are currently filled. He said the cuts could delay response times by 20 seconds in some cases. As he did last year, Large suggested cushioning these cuts with a $12 fee on property that would generate $6 million. Like last year, Foster rejected it.
"That's already dead," Foster said. "That's not a direction we're ready to take."
Large accepted defeat, observing, "I guess it's the climate, the antitax stuff going on."
But Foster is proposing new fees for residents. Aside from the $158 red-light camera tickets, Foster also wants to charge higher fees for adult sports resident cards. Now, residents who play in sports leagues pay $10 a year. Foster wants to change that to $15. For nonresidents, it'll be a steeper increase. Currently, teams with three or more nonresidents pay one fee of $125. Under the proposal, nonresidents would pay $125 each.
While there are no proposed cuts in pool or park hours, library hours will be reduced by four hours each week. Keeping parks and leisure services largely intact was an admission that it's best to avoid the backlash that met Foster's proposed closing of city pools last year.
"You can't be deaf to what we heard from the public last year," said Clarence Scott, the city's administrator for leisure and community services.
Foster also is seeking to install parking meters at Albert Whitted Park, North Shore Park and Bay Beach. He sought the high traffic areas that he believed would produce revenue. With Albert Whitted Park, he wanted to encourage Salvador Dalí Museum visitors to use the lot rather than the free spaces on the street.
"I hate the idea of putting meters at Albert Whitted Park," he said. "But there wasn't any available parking for those wanting to go to the park."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]