ST. PETERSBURG — A union representing 1,200 city workers plans to ask the City Council for an early Christmas gift.
The Florida Public Services Union is seeking bonuses for its 1,200 members and another 800 city workers who haven't had pay raises in more than four years. A $500 bonus for 2,000 workers would cost the city $1 million.
Unlike a traditional bonus, the union wants to require the workers to spend the money at St. Petersburg businesses. Union officials are still exploring exactly how to do that.
"Everyone thinks it's a great idea, including the mayor," said union boss Rick Smith. "This is a pretty big issue. It will put money back into the community."
But the request comes as the city grapples with a $5.2 million deficit in this year's budget and a $10 million shortfall in next year's.
The union will pitch the "Community Cash" plan at Thursday's City Council meeting. Smith thinks the city will have money in the budget once the final numbers are calculated.
Mayor Bill Foster disagreed: "I am not putting that in my budget."
Workers, Foster said, likely would prefer a raise instead of a gift card. But that isn't likely to happen this year.
Foster anticipates boosting salaries for employees in the 2014 budget. "I can't expect them to go five years without a raise," he said.
The union's request isn't new. The council rejected it in December 2011 and told the union to wait until this year's budget process.
While the council has the power to override Foster and work the bonus into the budget, several members wondered where the city would get the cash for the plan.
"It's a rough budget," Steve Kornell said. "I like the idea of supporting small businesses."
The city, Jeff Danner said, could not administer the spending. He also prefers giving employees raises next year.
"It's a neat idea," he said. "It might be something worth looking into."
Smith acknowledged that taxpayers might not like the proposal, but he stressed it would help boost morale.
The union, Smith said, has asked local banks and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce to help develop a program so employees could spend the money in the city. He estimates that could take six months.
"It would be a logistical nightmare," Foster countered.
To remedy next year's $10 million deficit, the City Council must decide whether to raise property taxes or implement a fire readiness fee on property owners. The council also could use a combination of both methods and dip into the reserves of $40 million.
Regardless of the method used to raise revenue, next year's budget must be set by Oct. 1. Public hearings will occur Sept. 13 and 27 at 6 p.m. at City Hall. Any bonus must be calculated into the final budget.
The proposed budget Foster sent to the council in July only included raises required by union contracts for police and firefighters.
Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.