Mayor Bill Foster's proposed fire protection fee has flamed out, and now the real work begins. The St. Petersburg City Council appropriately rejected the regressive fire fee Thursday night and voted to raise the property tax rate. But to be really good stewards of the taxpayers' money, the council members now have to go through the mayor's proposed budget and find more savings before deciding exactly how much to raise property taxes.
After defeating the fire fee, the council voted 6-2 to instead raise St. Petersburg's property tax rate from the current $5.9125 to $6.7742 per $1,000 of taxable property value. That took courage, because the city's property tax rate has not risen in 22 years even though property tax revenue has dropped by more than 30 percent since 2007 because of declining property values. While that is an impressive streak, it is past time for it to end and for St. Petersburg to more realistically address revenue and expenses.
That doesn't mean property taxes have to be raised to the maximum level the council set Thursday night to balance a $472 million budget with a $9 million shortfall. Foster is expected to revise his proposed budget, and the council should insist on some additional spending cuts and suggest some of their own. It should not be that difficult to make modest cuts, even if nearly three-quarters of the city's expenses are for personnel. Since 2007, the city workforce has been reduced by 10 percent while property tax revenue has dropped three times as fast. Foster proposes cutting another 13 positions next year and some smart savings in managing the city's vehicles, but more belt-tightening can be done.
It's also time for St. Petersburg to dip into city reserves of roughly $40 million. Former Mayor Rick Baker began building those reserves for a rainy day, and it would be reasonable to use several million dollars now. The worst of the recession appears to be over, and St. Petersburg expects a slight increase in property tax value next year. Clearwater, Tampa and other local governments around Tampa Bay are prudently using some reserves to make ends meet next year, and that makes more sense than closing pools or libraries.
Council members Leslie Curran, Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton asked some good budget questions Thursday night, and they did not get a lot of good answers from the Foster administration. They should keep pressing. In recent years, St. Petersburg has played too loosely with taxpayer money by cutting breaks with hotel developers on impact fees and with Progress Energy on tax bills. Foster's fuzzy explanations about a $5 million deficit in the current budget year that ends this month — including more than $2 million on city jobs that were to be left vacant to save money — also are discomforting.
The City Council did the right thing by killing Foster's fire fee. Now the mayor and the council members have two weeks to adjust a 2013 city budget that should rely on a reasonable mix of property tax increases, spending cuts and reserves to make ends meet. It shouldn't be that hard.