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St. Petersburg mayoral candidates talk about how they'd change city budget priorities

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayoral hopeful Kathleen Ford says she'll cut taxes by 8 percent and spend $1.3 million on new hires and equipment, mostly on police and fire.

She'll pay for it by redirecting $20 million of the city's bulging $286 million reserve.

The plan has drawn accolades from city union workers and criticism from Mayor Rick Baker and Ford's opponents, including the handful of candidates who say they, too, will invade the city's plentiful coffers to fund their campaign promises.

Critics call Ford's plan shortsighted or unrealistic. Supporters argue it would return tax dollars to taxpayers.

But for all the rancor, Ford is the only mayoral candidate whose budget suggestions are stirring much discussion. Why?

She's the only candidate talking numbers.

Her rivals have mostly sidestepped friction by offering vague promises to cut bureaucratic fat and feed government hallmarks such as public safety and economic development.

To be sure, all of the 10 mayoral candidates vow not to raise taxes. Ford, business owner Larry Williams and lawyer Bill Foster go further. The three former City Council members promise to eventually lower taxes.

Shaping the city's annual budget is one of the mayor's most important responsibilities. With six weeks left until the Sept. 1 primary and no hint of a front-runner, here are the candidates fiscal views:

Ford, 52, said she will balance her budget through selective zero-based budgeting, a process that would require a few departments to justify each expense every year before any cash is awarded. She'll start with the Police and Fleet departments and work from there.

To save money, Ford said she would eliminate the three deputy mayor positions created by Baker and 13 other managerial positions she declined to identify. All employees who earn more than $90,000 will see salary cuts of up to 10 percent, a measure that will save at least $700,000 each year.

She'll spend $300,000 to restore some of the 148 positions eliminated by Baker this year, including the city's cultural arts manager who was laid off despite widespread opposition from arts community leaders. She said her 8 percent tax cut will cost the city roughly $7 million. She said she will not touch surplus funds earmarked for debt repayment.

Williams, 64, said he would continue the Baker administration's practice of basing the city's annual income and expenses on prior budgets and future market projections. He also said he would maintain all city services.

"That does not mean I would not aggressively pursue avenues for expense reductions, revenue enhancements and a toe-the-line policy on spending," he said.

Foster, 46, said he will create a priority-oriented budget process. He said his administration will scrutinize and rank every expense in every department within two years.

The Foster Formula, his plan for City Hall, states, "If it doesn't involve public safety, it deserves serious consideration for a budgetary reduction."

To drum up cash, Foster said he will find corporate sponsors to help offset recreation and park programs and consolidate some services with Pinellas County, excluding public safety.

"I am not going to get too specific on that because I don't want there to be a big stir: 'Wow, if I support him my friend is going to lose his job,' " he said.

He also would eliminate the deputy mayor positions and consider dipping into the city's reserves for onetime expenses.

Real estate investor Scott Wagman said he will divert public dollars toward public safety, economic growth, infrastructure maintenance and code enforcement. His costliest pledge — to hire 100 police officers — is a $10 million initiative.

Wagman, 56, said he will free up cash in the budget by reducing subsidies. For example, he said he would close the Pier, saving roughly $1.5 million annually, while the public continues to debate what to do with the site. He said he will conduct annual performance evaluations to identify other unnecessary expenses or earmarks.City Council member Jamie Bennett also favors dipping into the city's reserves. Bennett, 56, said his administration would divert funds to pay down debt and seek cash from Tallahassee and Washington. Bennett said he would increase public safety spending and also bring back the city's cultural arts manager.

"But leadership requires making tough choices and I am willing to delay these investments until our budget is more stable and some of today's cuts can be restored," Bennett said.

Corporate executive Deveron Gibbons, 36, calls himself a fiscal conservative. He says he will fund police, fire, infrastructure and public transportation and in lean times, cut "non-essential" services. He will free up dollars by eliminating duplication and some unnecessary management jobs.

"I will continue the process of streamlining city government begun by Mayor Rick Baker, and will reallocate the resources we have to meet our consensus priorities," he said.

Restaurateur John Warren, 60, said he will suspend some recurring expenses, including new vehicle purchases and managerial positions, and eliminate "waste." He said his administration will purchase land downtown to add more surface parking lots. He said he would consider using the city's reserves.

Student Richard Eldridge, 47, says he will keep taxes "reasonable" and lower or raise the tax rate based on the economy.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

.By the numbers

St. Petersburg

Operating budget:
$206 million

Tax rate: 5.9125 mills

Income generated by
property taxes: $83 million

Reserve funds:
$286 million

St. Petersburg mayoral candidates talk about how they'd change city budget priorities 07/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 3:38pm]
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