Thursday, May 24, 2018
Opinion

It's time for some straight talk in St. Petersburg

Here's a question:

Who is in charge of backbone at City Hall these days?

In other words, who is finally going to stand up and say what needs to be said?

Resident after resident came to a microphone at a budget summit Wednesday evening and talked about what has been painfully obvious to most adults but has somehow escaped the lips of the mayor and City Council.

The time has come to raise property taxes in St. Petersburg.

Is it really that hard to say?

Oh, a politician or two has raised the issue in recent weeks. They've hinted at it. They've thrown it out there as if it's some nutty idea a ditzy cousin once brought up at the dinner table.

Yet no one has had the gumption to say it directly. Forcefully. Authoritatively.

The mayor and City Council are awfully adept at studying, contemplating, floating, debating, mulling, kvetching and tabling decisions. It's the actual doing that escapes them.

Remember, these are the people who have had two years to figure out how to deal with the problems of 3 a.m. bar closing times and still haven't done anything.

So maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that they've tiptoed around this budget mess. Maybe it makes sense that they've waited for the citizens to speak first.

"The public,'' council member Karl Nurse said, "is way ahead of us.''

The bottom line is this:

To keep pace with lowered property values, the tax rate needs adjusting. It doesn't necessarily mean you need to pay more taxes, just that the rate itself needs to be raised.

How hard can it be for just one elected official to loudly make that argument?

They could point out that the last time the tax rate was raised, Tropicana Field had yet to open its doors. They could point out that the millage rate has been dropped at least a dozen times since 1990 and is now about 36 percent lower than it was at that time.

They could point out that, by remaining steady the past five years, the tax rate is generating about $30 million a year less.

They could point out that the City Council has already cut jobs and services. It has added parking meters and raised meter rates. It has installed red light cameras. It has increased fees for inspections and recreation cards.

Enough.

The time has come to stop dithering over raiding the city's reserves, or the possibility of adding fire fees or street light fees. Frankly, that's sounds like political mumbo jumbo.

Fees are the same thing as taxes, but without the tea party-obsessed connotations. And fees are actually more wasteful than taxes because of the administrative costs involved.

So, yes, the millage rate needs to be raised.

Look at it this way:

Property tax rates have not gone up in more than 20 years. The current millage rate is not out of line with other major cities in the state. It's actually lower than Jacksonville, Miami and West Palm Beach.

The council and mayor have done a fine job of reducing the city budget without too much impact on everyday life, but that cannot continue indefinitely.

The time has come for blunt talk and leadership.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this column. John Romano can be reached at [email protected]

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