Fiscal transparency has never been a hallmark in St. Petersburg City Hall. In recent years, even the City Council has been surprised to learn about underpaid franchise or commercial development fees, seen mayors threaten major budget cuts only to suddenly find money to avoid them, or been forced to spend reserves at the end of the budget year to fill a hole. With a reported $2.3 million budget deficit looming this year, Mayor Rick Kriseman should set a new tone and commitment to fiscal discipline.
City budget director Tom Greene informed the City Council last month that lower-than-expected tax receipts meant a projected budget shortfall of up to $2.3 million. That number is a bit of a moving target. Revenue could rebound, and costs for various government services could decline. Indeed, Greene said the budget gap didn't include some cost savings the city had seen from recent employee departures.
But the broader point isn't so much the exact deficit but how the mayor addresses it. Already, city staff say they have identified about $750,000 in one-time dollars that could help close the gap, such as $250,000 that was never spent but set aside in 2007 to help with annexations. And Kriseman has continued an initiative from his predecessor in directing departments to find cost-saving measures. But the real goal, particularly during improving economic times, is for government to live within its recurring revenue for recurring services and to be open about how a budget is balanced.
Kriseman, who added to the city's expenses with several high-profile hires at the start of his term, now needs to deliver on a promise that his administration will live within its means and be transparent about how that will be done. Waiting until the end of the budget year and writing a check from city reserves would be the wrong answer.