In some ways, St. Petersburg is in an enviable position compared to other Florida cities. Its 5 percent drop in operating funds next fiscal year is less than many other cities. Mayor Rick Baker has brought a fiscal conservative's mentality to the job, enabling the city to cut millage rates five times in eight years and sock away a larger-than-required reserve. But Baker's proposed $206 million operating budget for next year has a major flaw that the City Council should not ignore.
Baker is calling for the city to renege on its contracts with the city's three unions — police, firefighters and the blue- and white-collar workers. He wants to save $2.5 million by forcing a wage freeze on the unions starting with the next fiscal year Oct. 1. To do so, Baker is ready to declare the city has a financial emergency. But the facts are that city officials signed those contracts and there is money in the bank to pay them. The city should honor its obligations. The public can chime in at a budget hearing at 6 p.m. today at City Hall.
To the average citizen, asking public employee unions to accept concessions in this economy is reasonable. Across Tampa Bay, taxpayers have seen their wages frozen or cut or lost their jobs altogether, leaving little empathy for those now in line for a salary hike at taxpayer expense. Already St. Petersburg's nonunion workers have gone a year without wage increases; its management staff has seen a 2.5 percent cut, and 112 full-time jobs have been cut.
The union contracts are generous in these tough times. Signed near the height of the real estate boom, they give the unions a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase and up to 6 or 7 percent total for police and fire union members due for step increases. In hindsight, Baker and the City Council surely wish they hadn't agreed to such largesse. But they did.
So far, Baker is willing to discuss only one other option for balancing the budget if the unions won't agree to a wage freeze: Cut up to 100 more jobs. Most likely those cuts will come from outside public safety, including many staff represented by the Florida Public Services Union. Baker says the union has been open to discussing possible concessions. The police and fire unions haven't, a fact the public shouldn't forget during the next round of negotiations.
But there are other options. Of course, raising the property tax rate would be politically unpopular. But the city could tap the reserve fund that is expected to top $20 million next year. Baker is opposed. Reserves, he contends, are stashed away for emergencies, such as post-hurricane recovery. Pay the unions more now, he argues, and the city will just be in a deeper hole a year from now.
He's right. But the fact is the city signed the contracts and it should abide by them — just as Baker expects the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team to abide by its contract to play in St. Petersburg until 2027. Fighting the unions won't come without costs, from legal fees to more acrimony in the next round of negotiations. The city should honor its commitments, particularly on an item that amounts to 1 percent of next year's general fund.