ST. PETERSBURG — City workers responsible for spending millions of taxpayer dollars should have to justify every expenditure, mayoral candidate Bill Foster said Monday at a public event to kick off his campaign.
As city leaders brace for as much as a $20 million reduction in property tax revenue, Foster pledged to transform St. Petersburg's budgetary process and work toward reducing the city's tax rate. His rally at Pioneer Park drew more than 100 business owners, friends, family and city leaders.
"City government can no longer afford to be everything to everyone," said Foster, a lawyer and former City Council member.
Foster said he would favor a form of zero-based budgeting, a line-by-line review system embraced by government watchdogs.
The city currently bases its budget on prior expenditures, which critics say discourages belt-tightening.
Under Foster's plan, a budget's starting point would not be zero, but a percentage of the previous year's budget. Foster said as mayor he would determine that percentage each year, based on the city's needs.
For instance, if the city faced a difficult financial year and needed a cut, he might use 70 percent of the current budget as his starting point. Each department would have to justify each dollar above that number. Anything deemed ineffective or low-priority would be cut, Foster said.
Longtime budget critics praised Foster's initiative.
Former council member Bob Kersteen said Foster's budget plan is the primary reason he is supporting him.
But some of Foster's mayoral opponents said his plan makes no sense.
"For someone to say he has eight years of experience with one budgetary process and then to switch to something else, he loses all of his experience," said council member Jamie Bennett, who also wants to be mayor. "During the eight years he was on council, I don't remember him once mentioning we should go to zero-based budgeting."
Bennett said the current budget system only needs to be tweaked slightly to cull better results.
Real estate investor Scott Wagman, also a candidate, called Foster's plan "amateurish."
"Anyone that has worked in real business knows that once a year you don't throw out your budget and start with a new piece of paper," he said.
Wagman said he would require city staff to periodically evaluate the effectiveness of all city programs throughout the year.
Foster became a candidate last month but, like most of his opponents, had shied away from providing specific details on what his administration would look like.
But Monday he provided a detailed 15-page report he dubbed the Foster Formula, which spoke to his ideas on education, public safety, economic development and open government.
Foster said he would differentiate between government wants and needs and tap into community volunteers to help make up for eliminated programs or services. He also called for security cameras in city streets and parks.
Foster is the only mayoral candidate who has embraced zero-based budgeting.
Corporate executive Deveron Gibbons said he would streamline the budget, but would not comment on how he would do that.
Paul Congemi, an activist for the homeless, said his only budget promise at this point is to continue to give police officers annual raises.
Minister Sharon Russ said she would figure out how to create a budget with the help of city staff if she became mayor.
Former council member Kathleen Ford said the city's budget process does not work.
"There has been a continual increase without a real analysis of the increases and whether they are working," she said.
However, she said that while some departments would benefit from zero-based budgeting, it would be impractical citywide.