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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.