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A Times Editorial

Fuzzy math at St. Petersburg City Hall

It's bad enough that St. Petersburg has to fill a $10 million budget hole for the coming year and has yet to find a reasonable way to fill it. It's worse to discover the city has another $5.2 million budget hole to fill in the budget year that ends at the end of September. That makes the future look even more difficult, and it suggests Mayor Bill Foster is not the best fiscal steward for city taxpayers.

City governments routinely reconcile their budgets at the end of the fiscal year. But a deficit of more than $5 million, even in a general fund of about $200 million, is out of the ordinary for St. Petersburg and most other local governments. Equally concerning is the inability of the mayor and his staff to provide a clear explanation.

Example one: The city's one-page summary shows estimated city expenses tied to the Republican National Convention of $580,000. City officials say that was a rough projection from months ago, yet they included it in calculating the city's bottom line. Foster says "in no way will St. Petersburg residents foot the bill" for costs tied to the RNC party at Tropicana Field and security expenses. Indeed, St. Petersburg will be paid $1 million in federal money to cover security costs, and city officials say at least half of the original projection could be covered with that money. But how much the city spent out of its own pocket for sprucing up landscaping and the like isn't known.

Example two: Foster expected to save $2.3 million this year by leaving 30 positions vacant but filled them instead. The jobs are described as maintenance workers, library clerks and other entry-level employees. Simple math puts the cost for each of those positions at more than $76,000, which is too high to match those general job descriptions.

Example 3: St. Petersburg took in $3 million less than expected in utility taxes and franchise fees paid by Progress Energy because of reduced demand for electricity. City officials say that shortfall is figured into the $5.2 million deficit, but that is not clearly reflected on the one-page summary.

It's not even clear who knew what when about the city's budget issues. Foster and his staff say City Council members were kept informed, but some council members say they were not. In any event, the council should ask the mayor some tough questions.

The future is just as cloudy as the past. The City Council expects to hear from residents today about Foster's proposal to fill at least part of the shortfall for 2012-13 with a new fee for fire protection. The mayor now says he would exempt nonprofits from his proposal to assess every nongovernment parcel of property in the city a two-part fire fee. And he expects the fee to be less than the initial proposal of a $75 flat fee and up to 23 cents per $1,000 of assessed value of any structures on a parcel. But tweaking a bad idea does not make it palatable, and the council should reject it.

With the exception of Largo, the other larger Pinellas cities are not increasing their property tax rates for the coming year. They are generally making do by reducing spending and tapping reserves, and Clearwater is smartly asking voters to approve pension reforms as well. But at St. Petersburg City Hall, nothing comes easy. Fuzzy math and fuzzier explanations are the norm, and taxpayers will pay the price.

Fuzzy math at St. Petersburg City Hall 09/05/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 5:47pm]
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