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Council on raises: Forget it

After receiving scores of angry phone calls, letters and e-mails from city residents, the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday abandoned the ideas of raising its salary, giving itself a pension or bumping up its car allowance.

The council voted 5-1 in favor of member Richard Kriseman's proposals to kill those ideas and any similar increases for Mayor Rick Baker. Council Chairwoman Rene Flowers, who had proposed increasing the council expense allowance from $150 per month to $400 per month, was the lone dissenter. John Bryan and James Bennett, who had supported the increases, were absent.

"The timing certainly has not been good on this issue," Kriseman said. "The budget is tight, and we need to be cautious."

Many residents who complained to the council talked about timing, as well as the need for frugality, a desire for public-spiritedness rather than selfishness in their public officials, and a desire for five newly elected council members to serve longer than three months before giving themselves a raise.

"They should stop and think _ the money is not their own," said Dawn Weins, a 73-year-old retiree who lives in Gladden Park. "You don't go into a job and ask three months later, "Can I have a raise?' You don't. I didn't. You don't do things like that. You have to prove your worth, and they haven't done that."

The council has received about 100 calls, e-mails and letters from the public, most of them critical of council members' discussions about establishing a pension for their part-time positions, giving themselves raises or raising their monthly expense allowance.

Kriseman first said he opposed those perks late last week, after previously saying he needed to gather more information.

Thursday, he even proposed ending City Council members' use of the city's suite and season tickets at Tropicana Field, instead letting the mayor use them for economic development and employee and community recognition. That idea failed.

Council members voted over his objection to have a subcommittee draft some guidelines for their use of the suite instead.

"This might be learning too much from our mistakes, if you will," Lasita said, adding that he and other council members have used the suite properly to reward community groups and should not lose their privilege to do so. "I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Kriseman did succeed in killing the suggested $4,000 increase in the council's budget for refreshments at Tropicana Field, which member John Bryan had proposed. Bryan used his first night in the suite to entertain his campaign volunteers and out-of-town friends.

Council members asked instead to share the mayor's existing $4,000 budget for Tropicana Field concessions.

Kriseman and member Bill Foster spoke against increasing the council's perks on principle.

"The mayor has asked city departments to tighten their belts," Foster said. "We're all in this together, and we're all good stewards of the taxpayers' dollars."

Other members said they felt they had gotten a bad ride in the media. Jay Lasita voted along with Kriseman and Foster to abandon increased compensation but said the real problem was that the council had not managed the public's perception.

"It really troubles me when the image of this council is tarnished," he said. He spoke about a need for "getting back to managing the issue, not being managed by the issue."

Flowers said raises and pensions were never included in a draft of the city budget, merely discussed.

"Every single council has grappled with this issue," she said. "It has been made more of than I ever thought it would be."

But Foster pointed out that he has opposed the raises from the start and said Thursday that other council members should have, too.

"It could have been nipped in the bud before it got this far," Foster said.

A few residents thought the council deserves raises.

"Maybe if we pay someone fairly, or not pay them so little, maybe they will put more into this city," said Eula Perry, 54, a retiree. "And maybe I'll see some changes on the south side where I live."

Others suggested the council members should have referred the decision on their own raises to the people who elected them.

"The size and complexity of this city has grown to proportions that may require this action," wrote Robert W. Fisher Jr. "However would it not be prudent to place this on a referendum to the voters of this city in lieu of potential political suicide?"

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