Every morning for the past two years, I have thanked God for this wonderful opportunity of being mayor of St. Petersburg, one of the greatest cities in America. While we did not create this global recession, foreclosure crisis or double digit unemployment, we had to endure, and through the efforts of an innovative and talented staff and local elected officials, past and present, coupled with an engaged and enlightened community, ours is a livable city experiencing growth, and remains a "best" for arts, culture and young people.
This past week, the City Council and I began hosting a series of Budget Summits giving you direct access to decisionmakers and allowing you opportunities to voice your ideas as we find that balance between need versus want, cost reductions versus service levels and quality of life. Our revenue forecast has been updated with our latest projections from the property appraiser, resulting in a gap of approximately $13 million. Couched in the context of a $79 million reduction in property tax revenue over the past five years, a $67 million reduction in the general fund budget, and an elimination of 220 positions during that same time frame, our decisions this year could not be more important to the future of our city.
Bottom line: A $13 million reduction alone will begin the deconstruction of our vibrant and beautiful city that was decades in the making. We must be in a position to generate new revenue to apply toward the gap between the city we desire and the city we can afford. This could come in the form of a millage rate increase on all taxable parcels, an assessment on all parcels in the city, or a combination of the two. These modest gains in revenue plus thoughtful service reductions will help us eliminate our current and future gaps, and will create a more sustainable public service model as we compete well into the future for economic development, jobs and tax base growth.
Indeed, there are some who complain about "big government," "overregulation'' and "bureaucracy," and on many levels of government, I am one of those voices. However, the argument is waning in this age of "kick the can" to local government, with cost shifting from federal and state authorities to the cities, with restrictions on local authority to generate revenue and grant reductions/eliminations. We are no longer top heavy, but have retained the best talent at minimal levels. We have used technology for efficiency, privatized appropriate functions, streamlined many processes and removed impediments to progress. Ours is a service industry. We come when you call 911, fix potholes and sidewalks, help your children in your libraries, and exercise minds and bodies in your parks, pools and recreation centers. We pave roads, illuminate streets, signal intersections, and provide safe, clean environments conducive to livable neighborhoods and business development. It all comes with a price, and this is the year we must decide what kind of city we want to be in the future as we create a new normal.
I was overwhelmed by the community response at the first Budget Summit. In the midst of a standing-room-only crowd, dozens of citizens stepped forward to affirm their passion and appreciation for the quality-of-life services provided by the city, and all but a few expressed a willingness to pay a little more, pennies a day, to maintain positive momentum and sustainability well into the future. Moving forward, I fully expect to hear from numerous opponents to any revenue increase, and their voices must be heard and ideas considered. Indeed, this is the people's money and the people's budget and nothing will be etched in stone until everyone has had an opportunity to be heard. There are no bad ideas; only those unspoken will not be considered.
My passion and mission remains the promotion of a safe, seamless and vibrant community focused on quality of life, customer service and continuous improvement, creating environments for capital investment and job growth while preserving our unique charm and enhancing your love affair with the city of St. Petersburg. We need you to be informed and engaged more than ever. Please join us for the remaining Budget Summits at 6 p.m. May 16 (Roberts Recreation Center, 1246 50th Ave. N) and June 13 (Manhattan Casino, 642 22nd St. S).