ST. PETERSBURG — Amid a deep recession and a pervasive antigovernment mood, city residents give Bill Foster mostly favorable marks in his first year in office, according to a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll.
Thirty-nine percent of 403 adult St. Petersburg residents surveyed said they rated Foster's performance as either excellent or good.
A majority said they were satisfied with how Foster, 47, was handling four major issues facing his administration: homelessness, crime, a leaner budget and the Tampa Bay Rays. Overall, 57 percent of respondents said the city is headed in the right direction, while only 14 percent said it was off track.
"Mayor (Rick) Baker was a decent mayor, but Mayor Foster seems to be even better," said Joan Putrino, a 47-year-old Old Northeast resident who gives Foster an "A" in his first year. "He seems to relate to everyone."
The poll was conducted Dec. 8-12 by American Directions Group for the Times and Bay News 9. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent.
Putrino said two issues important to her were Foster's creation of a city curbside recycling program and his support of banning street solicitation.
"All the things that were important to me, he tackled right after taking office," Putrino said. "I'm sure he'll make mistakes as mayor; I just can't think of any he made in his first year."
Many respondents seemed to agree that it takes time to evaluate a mayor. Even those who said Foster had done an excellent job said he had yet to make his mark.
"He hasn't done anything that's really bothered me," said Marcy Myers, 59. "I have to be honest, though, he hasn't done anything really impressive, either."
His newness in the job contributed to Foster's relatively low approval ratings. While Foster didn't break 40 percent in the combined "excellent" and "good" ratings, Baker drew 55 percent in a poll of registered voters in June 2009, his final year on the job. In March 2001, 67 percent of adults surveyed gave Mayor Dave Fischer, also in his last year, comparably favorable marks.
Both Baker and Fischer served two terms. By then, most people had made up their minds, with 6 percent or less of the respondents saying they didn't have an opinion about those mayors. In Foster's case, however, 1 in 4 residents couldn't say yet what they thought of his performance.
Foster said he isn't concerned that his positives don't match his predecessors — yet.
"You have a guy with three years to go, so you don't give him an 'A'," Foster said. "You give him an 'average' and expect improvement in the years to come. I never said to anyone during the campaign that I would set the world on fire in my first year."
Only 5 percent of those asked said Foster was doing a poor job. That's half as many as characterized Baker doing a subpar job last year.
In the context of the current economic climate, Foster's numbers look even better. Twenty percent of adults surveyed said the city was better off than one year ago. In all, 4 out of 5 adults surveyed said the city is either better off or about the same.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said Foster's positives would have been higher if not for the economy, which will continue to haunt his administration in the next three years.
"He's governing during a time of decreasing resources," Welch said. "When Fischer and Baker were mayor, they were increasing services. Foster is cutting resources and trying to maintain services. It's a much different playing field, and I think you're seeing that in the numbers."
Much of Foster's inaugural year was spent slashing spending to make up for dwindling property tax revenue. He eliminated full-time ranger positions at the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, cut 11 full-time positions in the Police Department, and increased pool admission fees by $1.
But he refused to raise taxes or impose a $60 annual fee on property to pay for fire service that would have raised $6 million, even though his fire chief supported it.
"I honestly hate the fact that we are in such economic times where we have to cut services and programming because our citizens have a level of expectation that they inherited during really good years," Foster said. "The greatest accomplishment for this city as a team was really tackling this budget in a very tough economic time."
Foster got the highest marks for his stance on the Tampa Bay Rays. This summer, team owner Stu Sternberg made it clear the team wants a new stadium and wants to consider other sites, including in Tampa. Foster said he wouldn't allow the team out of its contract at Tropicana Field if it were to leave Pinellas County.
That tough stance appeared to pay off, with 22 percent of St. Petersburg residents saying they were "very satisfied" with how Foster handled the Rays.
"The way he handled the stadium issue was good," said Will Michaels, the outgoing president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations. "I think the residents appreciate that."
A wide majority were pleased with Foster's handling of crime, with 61 percent saying they were "very satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied." He's taken a keen interest in police issues, visiting the police station frequently and carrying around a police radio. Meanwhile, crime was down 19 percent in November compared with the first 11 months of 2009, according to St. Petersburg police.
"Crime is his strongest area," said council member Karl Nurse. "Twenty percent is a remarkable drop, and I'd attribute that to the police being more comfortable. He knows the majority of the patrol officers and front line people. That's good for morale. You get a better job done by people with good morale."
Foster got his lowest marks on handling homeless issues. Only 15 percent said they were "very satisfied." Thirty-three percent, meanwhile, said they were "not too satisfied" — more than any other issue.
Foster recently has spent more time on this than other issues, as the ranks of the homeless grow. Their presence has made many residents uneasy, and in recent months Foster has worked with county officials to open a new shelter next to the county jail that would hold those who violate ordinances prohibiting behavior like sleeping on rights-of-way and public urination.
"There are too many homeless," said Pat Merechant, 60, a downtown resident. "But the city is going to put them next to a jail like they were criminals. That bothers me."
Foster said he doesn't intend to criminalize the homeless at the new "Safe Harbor" shelter, which is slated to open in January.
"Come the first week of January, we'll have to re-poll that question," Foster said. "People will see a noticeable change in street homelessness. My goal is to achieve this without making a great number of arrests. There's no reason for anyone to get arrested so we can get them into a nice safe sheltered environment."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org