More money often makes things easier, and that's especially true when it comes to municipal budgets. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's first annual budget proposal uses resurgent property tax revenue to pay for new or enhanced investments aimed at some of the city's most intractable problems. Kriseman also proposes pay raises for employees and steering more money into reserves for the first time in seven years. The mayor appears to be delivering on the fiscal priorities he campaigned on, but it will be up to the City Council to improve on the plan.
Kriseman's office released the $216.3 million budget plan, as required by the city charter, on Tuesday with little fanfare. The plan calls for maintaining the city's property tax rate ($6.77 per $1,000 of assessed value) and avoids increases in most user fees — save for a potential 5.5 percent increase in fees for water and sewer, which are self-sustaining enterprises. The city will have roughly $3.87 million more for its general operating expenses than the current year. Much of that is due to an additional $5.5 million in property tax revenue thanks to higher property values, but that is partially offset by a $1.16 million drop in franchise fees that are paid by electric utilities.
The mayor's plan for spending the new money is particularly encouraging. Having campaigned on the notion that all neighborhoods need to prosper, Kriseman is putting $5.75 million in a newly reorganized Neighborhood Affairs Administration with money targeted toward everything from rehabilitating foreclosed properties in low-income neighborhoods to providing teenagers summer jobs. The city would increase, by $50,000 to a total of $150,000, its financial commitment to Safe Harbor, the countywide homeless shelter. There's also $75,000 that will enable St. Vincent de Paul, downtown's most comprehensive homeless agency, to stay open 24 hours a day. The city's homeless consultant recently suggested both of those smart investments as a way to check a once-again growing presence of homeless in downtown's Williams Park and elsewhere.
The mayor also proposes spending more on the city's economic development and marketing efforts, two areas that took significant hits during the recession. And there are several line items for increased staff training and travel, money Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said has been purposely added back after being shorted in recent years. Staff salary increases are planned, subject to union negotiations. And also of note, Kriseman's expanded mayoral staff remains — at a cost of nearly $1.1 million in salaries. But at least next year the mayor is proposing using recurring dollars for the expense, not one-time funds.
Now the City Council should improve upon the mayor's spending plan, search for more savings and reinvest them in the city's priorities or modest tax cuts. Kriseman's budget plan benefits, after all, from the tax rate increase the council passed two years ago to avoid even steeper spending cuts as the recession wound to a close. That rate was shaved this year slightly as property values rebounded. But property values still lag behind their 2007 high. Kriseman's plan for spending the new revenue underscores the right values, but it's still the council's job to scrutinize every dollar and ensure it's being spent wisely.