Thursday, April 26, 2018
Opinion

Steinle: Packed budget meeting shows north-south divide

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

That's how the public typically reacts when a city government is developing next year's budget. During more than 25 years of covering local governments, mostly in northern Pinellas County, I've sat time after time in a sea of empty chairs while officials discussed how to spend taxpayers' money.

So I was astonished when I walked into a recent St. Petersburg budget meeting and found the room packed. Three hours and some 50 speakers later, I had witnessed an unexpected difference between the northern and southern halves of Pinellas. When St. Petersburg residents were invited to help set city spending priorities, they showed up. They brought their passions, personal stories and visions of a better community. They even brought poetry.

They were courteous to officials and supportive of one another, and asked how they could help the city accomplish more.

It was an eye-opening and refreshing demonstration of community participation in one of the most important functions of government. Mayor Rick Kriseman will submit his proposed budget in early July; the City Council will then hold public hearings before passing a final budget.

North Pinellas residents only rarely appear en masse for budget meetings. Though North Pinellas is considered the wealthier half of the county, its residents are more likely to show up and be in a fighting mood if a tax increase of any size is on the table. They aren't above pointing a finger at officials and threatening to vote them out of office if they raise taxes. And residents of suburban, largely middle class North Pinellas don't generally ask officials to make sure the needs of their less fortunate brethren are remembered at budget time.

In contrast, here's what was on the minds of those crowding into one of three St. Petersburg budget summits last month at the Wildwood Recreation Center: Poverty. AIDS. Early childhood education. Boarded-up houses. Struggling small businesses. Jobs for bored teens.

"Let them learn job skills instead of how to hold a gun and rob people," said Lisa Wheeler-Brown, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

Alma Kicklighter pleaded for city dollars for her HIV/AIDS program. "People are crying for help," she said.

One speaker said the city should help young people get to college. She told a story that set heads shaking about a friend who dreamed of college but didn't have $45 to take the SAT college admission exam.

Vacant city-owned properties drag down the community, a local investor said. He urged the city to sell the properties to residents at little or no cost so they could realize the dream of home ownership, since local banks won't finance homes in south St. Petersburg, he said.

A discouraged young woman talked about how she had taken special programs to prepare her for the workplace, but no one will hire her.

A black man praised Kriseman and City Council members, who sat at the front of the room. Then he turned to the mixed-race crowd and said African-Americans need to support their neighborhood businesses. "We've got to do much better in our camp," he said.

Onetime council candidate Alex Duensing read a poem he wrote. At first, people looked at one another with a "this is odd" look on their faces, but they applauded him at the end, because like others in the room, he cared enough to come to a budget meeting and share his ideas in his own way.

When the last speaker was done, city officials used words like "inspired," "powerful" and "courageous and candid" to describe what they'd heard.

Some of the speakers' requests won't get funded because the city must balance its budget and already has more expenses than it does cash. But it was inspiring that people showed up and, mindful of the needs of all, said what was in their hearts. I left feeling lifted up because of what I didn't hear: the anger, condemnation and self-centeredness so commonly expressed in many government meetings these days.

Those sentiments tear us down. They will never build us up.

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