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Mayor takes aim at city's tax rate

Mayor David Fischer points to a truly tangible incentive for yanking down St. Petersburg's property tax rate.

It's called the Bayside Bridge, and since it opened in 1993 the connector between 49th Street N and McMullen Booth Road has offered people an easier means of living in north Pinellas and commuting south to work. Couple that with St. Petersburg's notoriously high tax rate, and the mayor sees a recipe for stagnation.

"People look at us from the unincorporated areas and say, "It's just too expensive to live in St. Petersburg,' " Fischer said. "If we're not competing, they'll continue to live north of us."

So the mayor is on a mission to wring some small reductions out of the city's tax rate for the next two years. Hardly an out-on-a-limb stance for a politician. But Fischer believes he can do it with virtually no visible sacrifices for the vast majority of citizens.

He's talking cutting the tax rate slightly and continuing the city's push to improve neighborhoods.

Residents with homes valued at $75,000 should expect their city tax bills to drop about $12 under Fischer's budget proposal for 1996. At the same time, city government would add 18 police officers, continue to improve landscaping and add to the library system's collection.

This at a time when the city is preparing to contribute $12-million toward unanticipated improvements at the ThunderDome, when debt payments for various capital projects are on the verge of increasing, and when city staffers are talking about the possibility of having to add hundreds of thousands of dollars to supplement pension funds.

Fischer isn't worried. He already has laid out his relatively painless 1996 budget, and he contends that his work reorganizing city offices this year _ particularly disbanding the maintenance department and folding its operations into other offices _ will make for another possible tax rate decrease in 1997 without hurting services.

"You'd be surprised once you get the staff working together on it," Fischer said of the prospects for big savings. "I think next year we'll have a big reduction."

He recalled incredulously the period in the late 1980s when the city council "relentlessly" raised the tax rate nearly as high as 9 mills. That was during a period when the city was carrying major downtown projects such as the ThunderDome and Bayfront Center, but Fischer suggested the tax rate also was due to a bloated city government.

His target for 1997 is to bring the rate next year to 7.5 mills. Should he run for another term he would then work toward 7 mills, he said, but trying to push lower would threaten the city's quality of life.

As it is, some council members are balking at the biggest sacrifice proposed in Fischer's 1996 budget: the elimination of one of the fire department's four ladder trucks. They have questioned whether the plan would sacrifice speedy fire service to the downtown area. The move would save $500,000.

"It's nice to lower the tax rate if you're covering all your bases and maintaining your services. If you don't do that, it's absurd," said Councilman Edward L. Cole Jr., who is not sure the ladder truck should be cut.

Council members have reviewed Fischer's budget proposal, but have not committed to anything. On Thursday the board will decide to commit tentatively to Fischer's tax rate reduction. Cole and Councilwoman Bea Griswold suggested the board might want to hold off on locking themselves into a reduction until further review and public hearings.

The ladder truck proposal is the single most controversial cut, but the budget contains plenty of other elements likely to antagonize particular interest groups. Fischer, for instance, wants to raise more than $150,000 by raising fees in areas including marina rental rates to Pier parking (from the current $2 to $2.50). He also would initiate fees for building plan reviews and seek reimbursement for utility expenses from social service agencies at the Sunshine Center and Davis Center.

"We've been raising these fees, and I don't think most people understand that," said City Councilman Larry Williams, who promised to focus on the 1997 budget during his second year on the council.

"I'm going to take a lot of time and effort to squeeze," he said, without offering specific suggestions. "I would just put all the department heads in a room and say, "Okay, cut 10 percent,' and watch them squirm."

But at this stage no one has any suggestions for significant cuts that won't affect services.

"We're running out of all the easy ones," said Tish Elston, the city's budget director.

Meanwhile, the city is expecting annual debt payments for various capital projects to increase after 1997. City officials had planned on covering some debt payments for downtown projects out of revenue generated from increased property values downtown. Downtown values have continued falling, however.

Barring a plunge in values or major unexpected expenses, though, Fiscal Services Administrator John Habgood said he doubted debt payments would impact property taxes. If need be the city could dip into a $5-million "debt stabilization fund," Habgood said, or into parking revenue to handle those payments.

Fischer also expects to float bonds to cover the city's additional $12-million cost for Dome improvements, but that money won't be raised before the 1997 budget. He expects to structure the payments so that the expenses kick in after the city starts receiving revenue from ticket sales and after the city has completed its obligation to pay an annual $1.4-million management fee on the Dome.