It was a bone-headed move by the Pinellas Democratic Party to seek local tax dollars to landscape its St. Petersburg headquarters — and a worse decision by the city to approve the $531 grant. Now the Democrats have appropriately decided not to accept the money, but the flap damages the integrity of St. Petersburg's latest effort to improve poor minority neighborhoods.
The newly created South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area is a worthy attempt to improve a 7.5-square-mile area where a third of residents live in poverty. The concept pushed by Mayor Rick Kriseman is to use the CRA's tax-increment financing — property tax money generated by rising values within the CRA — to lift people out of poverty through better affordable housing, job training and improvements to local businesses. The first $319,619 handed out to 32 businesses and groups in the CRA is a different approach than more traditional efforts that rely on direct government spending on public projects or grants to nonprofits that provide services.
The risk in the city directly picking winners and losers becomes obvious when public money for landscaping is awarded to the mayor's political party. Why should a pizza joint on First Avenue N get $9,700 for painting and windows, or a pharmacy on Central Avenue get more than $10,000 for landscaping, windows and painting? Supporters argue using public money to improve the appearance of businesses within the CRA will spur new investment that will create more jobs. But it's questionable whether this is the most effective, cost-efficient way to improve the lives of low-income families in these neighborhoods.
As Pinellas County Commissioner and St. Petersburg resident Ken Welch points out, the Democratic Party was right to decline the money, and the focus of the CRA should be to reduce poverty. The city should adjust its process so the next round of grants are more carefully screened and publicly evaluated by a citizen advisory committee with that goal in mind.