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A Times Editorial

St. Petersburg on solid financial ground

As other local governments bemoan the prospect of significant layoffs and deep cuts in services, St. Petersburg appears to be in much better shape because of conservative spending and tight financial controls during Mayor Rick Baker's seven years in office. His proposed 2008-09 budget includes some reasonable spending cuts and fee increases, and there are no big new initiatives for his last year. But maintaining existing services and avoiding severe cutbacks that erode the quality of life is a significant accomplishment in a grim economy with declining property tax revenue.

St. Petersburg will lose more than $5.8-million in property tax revenue because of Amendment 1 and declining values. But as other local governments contemplate layoffs, salary freezes and severe spending cuts, the city's proposed budget is comparatively upbeat. The 51 jobs that would be eliminated are either vacant or filled by employees planning to retire or moving to other jobs. There is a 2.5 percent salary increase for all, plus more for most firefighters and police officers. The mayor proposes just $2-million in spending cuts for a budget of $591-million, and the property tax rate would remain the same. Given their more difficult choices, most other communities would consider such relatively painless belt-tightening a minor miracle.

A closer look reveals a combination of favorable circumstances for the city and diligent financial management by the Baker administration. St. Petersburg has a stable population and little undeveloped land. It does not have to face paying big costs of growth even as it reaps $2.3-million in new revenue from new construction. While other Florida cities went on hiring binges during the good times, Baker kept trimming. Including his proposed budget, more than 180 positions will have been cut since 2001 — and more than half of them will have been from management and professional staff. That is a savings of nearly $10-million, a number most other cities would envy.

Baker has scraped up money to continue his widely praised mentoring program with public schools, keep spending for social services and the arts at the current levels and earmark more money for the Pinellas Hope homeless initiative. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude St. Petersburg is flush. There will be higher golf course fees, play camp fees and parking fines. And there is no money to substantially improve existing programs or create new ones.

That will be the challenge for the mayoral candidates as attention starts shifting from Baker to the November 2009 election and his successor. There likely will be candidates who want to add a significant number of police officers, promote more aggressive code enforcement or propose another bold initiative.

While Baker will leave the city on sound financial footing, there won't be any wiggle room. When voters start hearing campaign promises, the first question should be what existing program would be cut or what revenue would be raised to pay for them.

St. Petersburg on solid financial ground 06/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 2, 2008 4:17pm]
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