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St. Petersburg citizens, mayoral candidates speak out on neighborhoods

ST. PETERSBURG — They dial 911 when strange men lurk too close, keep vagrants from invading abandoned properties and sound the alarm when a scraggly lawn or broken window threatens their street's curb appeal. Amid a shrinking city budget and gloomy economy, involved neighbors have never been more important, city officials like to say.

Vacant homes have more than doubled since 2006, from 262 to 544. Only 73 construction permits were approved in 2008, the lowest number in seven years. The city awarded eight neighborhood grants last year, compared to 31 grants in 2001. The money goes toward neighborhood signs, lighting, landscaping and playground equipment.

With voters set to elect a new mayor in November, we asked neighborhood leaders two questions: What is the biggest challenge facing St. Petersburg's neighborhoods and what can be done about it?

What residents say:

Barbara Heck, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations

Challenge: Putting public safety issues aside, I think our budget (city, county and state) for 2010 and definitely for 2011 will be our biggest challenges. The budget fuels everything we do in our city and county. We have fewer dollars to spend on everything. We are making budget decisions that affect people and projects immediately and for years to come. We have to be very careful to understand fully the long-term effects of each dollar we spend or deny.

Solution: Everyone needs to pitch in to help close the funding gap. Volunteer your time, donate monies or services, support good causes. Stop complaining and start helping. Everyone can do something even if it is just passing out water bottles to a volunteer work crew cleaning up a neighbor's overgrown yard to eliminate a code citation.

Lance Lubin, president of Eagle Crest Home Owners Association

Challenge: The biggest challenge is getting the information we need to effectively run our crime watch programs. We have to be able to get the word out to people that says on Eighth Avenue this morning this home was burglarized, this is the information we have about the suspect, about the vehicle, or whatever information we might have, so we get the phone trees going and get the information out that day. Without this information, we are deaf and blind.

Solution: The solution is to get real-time data on crimes as they occur. We don't need to get every single call. We don't need the trivial. But we would rather have too much than too little or none at all. Ideally, it would be as close to real-time information as possible.

Maureen Stafford, president of Historic Old Northeast Association

Challenge: Our issue is crime. We are seeing the number of crimes increase. We are also seeing crime itself change. It used to be petty theft, a bicycle stolen out of a garage. It wasn't serious. We are seeing now sophisticated, organized crime. They will come in broad daylight and clear it all out. We are also seeing auto thefts, and we are seeing problems with foreclosed properties, the vacant and abandoned homes.

Solution: I see the mayor's office fostering round table discussions where she will send a representative from city codes, the neighborhood partnership office, and also a representative from the Police Department, a lieutenant or a major, and let's talk about these issues. The idea is that the neighborhood presidents can have a more global understanding of how things work in the city.

Judy Ellis, president of Lakewood Estates Civic

Association

Challenge: We suffer from a case of apathy, which doesn't mean everyone is indifferent, but we still suffer from a majority of people who don't join the crime watch, don't join the civic association, don't participate. This makes everything else more difficult, trying to rally people because of crime, trying to rally people to make your neighborhood look nicer.

Solution: I don't know what a government leader or a City Council member could do, except to hold regular meetings. I think those meetings are absolutely critical to communicate to the neighborhoods what's happening in City Hall. Twice a year is good, but I think every City Council person, regardless of what goes on in his or her neighborhood, needs to have regular meetings with his or her association because that helps spread the word, not just about the most critical issues, but there are a lot of issues that affect people indirectly, like street lighting.

Susan Ajoc, director of the St. Petersburg

Neighborhood Partnership program.

Challenge: The biggest challenge facing St. Petersburg's neighborhoods is sustainability.

Solution: The solution is communication and collaboration. In times of limited resources, developing partnerships between government, community entities and residents to enhance communications, but also to build community. All of us have a role in our community, the joining together of our strengths and assets would be a benefit.

John McMahon, president of Historic Kenwood Neighborhood

Association

Challenge: The challenge is not so much "is there crime or isn't there crime," but how a neighborhood responds to that. For example, in Kenwood we have had to deal with the issue, and we saw a spike in that when the economy turned. The challenge is mobilizing a neighborhood to respond to that.

Solution: The solution is to find people in the neighborhood who feel strongly about it and to lead the effort. For example, one of the greatest things we have done — this is a credit to our neighborhood watch people — they have gone door to door and collected as many e-mail addresses as they could. So when things happen people can be notified right away.

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

What the candidates say:

Deveron Gibbons, 36, corporate executive

Challenge: The biggest challenge to neighborhoods is that the city recognizes that the needs and interests are not the same in every neighborhood, that a one-size-fits-all attitude defeats the healthy diversity that makes our city strong and vital.

Solution: As mayor, I understand how fixing a streetlight is a top public safety concern in one neighborhood versus a more visible police presence is priority No. 1 in another. That's why every community will have a voice in my administration, and why we're going to expand office hours beyond City Hall so every person can be an active part of charting our future.

Ed Helm, 64, political activist

Challenge: The biggest challenge facing St. Petersburg neighborhoods are the limited resources now available for fostering community and neighborhood decisionmaking. This is, in part, because City Hall has wanted it to be a cheering section for itself rather than a source of community empowerment and decisionmaking. There has been a tendency (supported by City Hall) for neighborhoods to limit their focus and efforts to crime and being crime watch groups or code enforcement groups.

Solution: Inventory neighborhoods for hurricane preparedness. I propose a "census" of our own that ensures that seniors and people with disabilities in particular are identified. We can explore interest in assistance for sustainable living such as solar panels and other green solutions, a food co-op program, micro economic assistance as a way to stimulate job creation and small business development, improving our schools so that the obscene drop-out race is corrected.

John Warren, 60, restaurateur

Challenge: Appearances when everyone's budgets are strained.

Solution: We need to work with existing financial institutions to keep people in their homes and use code officials to assist individuals and neighborhoods adapt to new lawn care challenges. Solutions for landscaping issues can include education and info regarding Florida Friendly landscaping practices, etc. Perhaps the Parks Department can get involved by expanding their plant stock to assist with right of way vegetation.

Bill Foster, 46, lawyer

Challenge: The biggest challenge is public safety.

Solution: We have to eliminate conditions that allow criminal activity to flourish. I don't have a problem using security cameras in hot spots or high-traffic tourist areas. I am bringing back community policing. I want a crime watch in every neighborhood. The city is going to go out and absolutely sell this concept of crime watch, and we are going to educate the public as to crime watch techniques, what to look for. At any given time, the city will have 1,000 employees that all have a radio in the field. I want to educate them in the area of crime watch, what to look for. Even if you are reading a water meter or doing a reclaimed water inspection, be aware of your surroundings. Don't just look at your clipboard. I call it, "city crime watch."

Scott Wagman, 56, business owner

Challenge: The great challenge is crime and safety.

Solution: What the city needs to do is step up and provide them the resources to remain safe. I'll hire 100 new officers. We need the police so people see and feel police in their neighborhoods. We also need neighborhood policing.

Candidates on neighborhoods

Larry Williams, 64, business owner

Challenge: Safety.

Solution: There is a perception that is in effect a reality in certain neighborhoods. There is a perception that all the police resources are being distributed in other parts of town and some people are being left out. The answer is that has to stop. The whole city is entitled to protection.

Kathleen Ford, 52, lawyer

Challenge: Crime.

Solution: We need to return to community policing. More neighborhoods are forming their crime watch organizations. We need to support that. We need to address the codes compliance issues. We have a lot of outstanding warrants. When are we going to pick these people up? We need to bring gang experts to help. We need to bring in the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to address the guns in the neighborhoods, and we need to bring in the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to address the drug dealing. If we address the drug dealing, we can also address the prostitution that leaches out into the neighborhoods. We need to use reverse 911 to notify residents of crime in their neighborhoods. We can use software to identify hot spots in the neighborhoods.

Jamie Bennett, 57, City Council member

Challenge: The challenge is to keep the funding for the programs, keeping our staff and keeping the neighborhood partnership program.

Solution: We need to keep finding the money year after year. It offers a grass roots ability to address the issues every neighborhood periodically has to address, and it's to give them the opportunity to have the government interact with them at their meetings and provide solutions in an appropriate way.

Paul Congemi, 52, homeless advocate

Challenge: Crime.

Solution: I have a program that I want to set up throughout the entire city. It is called a cop on every block. I would like to have a police officer in every neighborhood from sunset to sunrise in order to cut down on crime.

Richard Eldridge, 47, student

Challenge: The biggest challenge will be the lack of funding. The money that they want does not exist.

Solution: You have to wait for the economy to improve. We just don't have the resources. People can make all kinds of promises, but they really won't be able to do anything.

St. Petersburg citizens, mayoral candidates speak out on neighborhoods 08/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:22pm]
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