Friday, February 23, 2018
News Roundup

St. Petersburg mayor wants to plump up reserves with $1 million

ST. PETERSBURG — The city's reserves are poised to get a $1 million infusion in Mayor Rick Kriseman's proposed budget, the first replenishment in seven years.

It's a sign of good economic times and would boost the city's various reserve funds to nearly $40 million.

It also would help keep the city in good standing with credit-rating agencies, said Tom Greene, the city's budget director. That will be important when the city looks to borrow money to build a new police station or revamp the Pier.

In the coming budget talks, that $1 million could also be a tempting pot of money for an array of interest groups, such as city employees who want raises, Agenda 2020 supporters trying to combat poverty in poor neighborhoods or arts organizations eager for more city support.

But Kriseman isn't likely to change his mind, as "the mayor's committed" to plumping up reserves, Greene said.

One person not happy with that is police union president Mark Marland, who said the proposed budget would unfairly cut more than $600,000 in police overtime pay.

"Before extra money is passed along to pet projects or placed in reserves, the money needs to be invested into the police department's budget to assist these overworked and understaffed officers on the street," Marland wrote in an email to City Council members.

Marland said the number of sworn officers today is nearly the same as when he was hired at the agency in 1989. In that time, the city has changed from having nearly empty streets to having a bustling downtown full of bars and restaurants and the problems that follow.

In the early 1990s, the department had about 510 sworn officers. Today there are 545.

With such an understaffed force, Marland said, the cuts would hamper proactive policing. He warned that the cuts would also cause rushed and sloppy investigations.

Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said the mayor is open to discussing the cuts. Ultimately, it will be the City Council's decision.

"There's plenty of time to amend the budget if we have to before it becomes finalized in September," Kirby said.

Other union leaders hailed the mayor's budget proposal.

Rick Smith, chief of staff for the Florida Public Services Union, which represents about 1,250 white- and blue-collar city workers, said the proposed budget "has a lot of flexibility."

The $1 million in reserve money isn't the biggest target, he said, mentioning the new high-salaried administration jobs that Kriseman added and $700,000 earmarked for advertising and marketing.

Still, Smith left himself room for negotiation.

"We don't have a problem with boosting reserves up where they need to be, but 20 percent is probably too high," Smith said.

If $1 million is added to reserves, the funds would still be about $3 million short of the city's goal to have reserves matching 20 percent of the city's $216.4 million general fund.

Council Chairman Bill Dudley supports beefing up the reserves and doesn't sense that there will be any pushback on that.

But budget season can always be surprising, he said. "There's something about the scent of money."

Bolstering reserves would send the right signals to corporations looking to relocate, he said.

Keeping a healthy reserve balance also can help with unexpected disasters such as hurricanes or floods, recessionary dips or just garden variety deficits. This year, the city has an estimated $1.5 million deficit, but that may diminish or even vanish because of higher-than-expected property tax revenue by fiscal year's end on Sept. 30, Greene said.

If not, it will be paid from reserves.

The City Council will take its first step on the budget today when it takes action on the proposed millage rate of 6.7700, which is unchanged from last year's. The council is also expected to set two public hearings on the budget for Sept. 4 and 18.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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