Next year's St. Petersburg budget should never have hinged on the simple choice between a regressive new fire fee or a nearly 1-mill increase in the property tax rate. But Thursday night those were the only formal options considered with the clock running out before the new fiscal year begins Monday. It was a failure of leadership by both Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council, who should have looked for additional cost savings and considered tapping reserves instead of passing such a large increase in the tax rate. Residents should be able to expect more from the council and mayor.
The council voted 7-1 to move St. Petersburg's property tax rate to $6.7742 per $1,000 of a property's taxable value, up from the current $5.9125. Council member Jim Kennedy — who cast the only opposing vote — was right to bemoan the fact that now St. Petersburg will have a higher property tax rate than surrounding communities. But his proposed alternative — to resurrect the ill-conceived fire fee the mayor had championed and the council scuttled — was even less desirable. It would have shifted government costs onto low-income homeowners while giving major property owners a significant break, and the council was right to reject the idea earlier this month.
But simply defaulting to a 15 percent higher property tax rate at the mayor's suggestion was an abdication of responsibility and a waste of public goodwill. For the first time in years, City Hall had a clear signal that the public, after years of shrinking taxes due to falling property values, was willing to see a tax increase or tap reserves in order to stave off more cuts to services such as parks, libraries and pools. Individual council members made suggestions about tapping reserves or finding cuts, but there was never a serious public discussion about those alternatives, much less an insistence that Foster provide formal options.
The lack of constructive pushback is even more baffling given recent revelations at City Hall. Foster informed the council last month that the city will end this fiscal year $5.2 million in the red due to still-unexplained expenses for the Republican National Convention, unanticipated hiring and other items. And some council members complained at Thursday's meeting that they wanted more details in the 2012-13 budget before approving it. Foster and city administrator Tish Elston took umbrage, saying seven of the council members had received more information in private briefings. But this is a public budget that spends taxpayers' dollars, not a private one. And still the council voted 5-3 to pass it.
This was bad form all around. The mayor should have offered more options sooner; the council should have demanded them and discussed them sooner. Instead, they let the clock run out. Government by default. It's no way to run a city.