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St. Petersburg won't close pools; $14M budget gap remains

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster announced Tuesday that he is dropping his plan to close two city pools next year, crediting an outcry from residents and City Council members with changing his mind.

"I heard you loud and clear," Foster told council members during an all-day budget workshop. "It still makes sense to close. However, it's not my money and they're not my pools."

His reversal salvages the Shore Acres and Jennie Hall pools. The closings had been one of the more notable pending cuts in next year's budget. Now that they are safe — at least through 2011 — a long list of tough choices, including cutting a total of 39 jobs, remain before a projected $14 million gap in next year's budget can be closed.

"There candidly aren't any good choices," said council member Karl Nurse.

Among the various reductions still proposed:

• Imposing a $1 increase in admission fees for eight city pools to help raise more money to keep them all open. Fees would climb from $2.50 to $3.50 for children ages 3 to 12, $3 to $4 for 13 and older. Foster also proposes a $2 increase for the North Shore Aquatic Center, all of which is expected to raise about $181,000.

• Cutting 10 full-time jobs at the Police Department, none of them sworn officers: a crime analyst, a clerk, maintenance mechanics, secretaries and storekeepers, and two part-time jobs. Those cuts, along with a reduction in repairs and renovations of facilities, would save an estimated $714,000 next year but not degrade service, police Chief Chuck Harmon said.

• Eliminating four vacant positions and overtime at city libraries that would require branches to open two hours later, 11 a.m. rather than 9 a.m., twice a week. These cuts, along with increasing fees and buying fewer supplies and books, would save $357,470.

• Imposing a 3 percent pay cut for City Council members, who make $40,117 now.

• Eliminating four positions paid by building permits and reorganizing the building department, including the removal of seven building inspection positions that, taken together, is projected to save $455,102.

• Eliminating an administrative assistant, three mechanics and some overtime in the city's fleet management that is expected to cut about $500,000.

Council members rejected a proposal to eliminate a fire engine and 11 firefighter positions that would have cut $948,313 from next year's budget. Chief James Large said the cuts would have tacked on an average of 30 seconds to response times to fires and emergencies.

"I'm concerned about the additional response time," council member Jim Kennedy said.

By shelving the plan to cut the engine and firefighters, however, Foster now has to find $1 million more to eliminate. One possible solution: imposing a fire district fee of about $5 a month on property. It would raise more than $5 million and some council members support it. But Foster doesn't, calling it a tax increase.

He's still hashing out the budget, which must be approved by the City Council during two September public hearings. It took seven hours on Tuesday just to discuss the preliminary cuts.

Foster's decision to back off on his plan to close the pools was applauded by Nurse, who said the new mayor went about it differently from how his predecessor, Rick Baker, would have.

"The pool idea wouldn't have gotten this far under Baker," Nurse said. "He typically knew how much resistance a proposal would have gotten before making it public. But this did show (Foster) isn't deaf."

Council member Wengay Newton said while he approved of Foster's decision to keep the pools open, he opposed implementing a fee increase to do it.

"There's an economic disparity in the city, and I don't think by charging a higher fee you're encouraging higher attendance," he said.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg won't close pools; $14M budget gap remains 05/25/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 10:00am]
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