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CITY WON'T GIVE UP CLUB FEES

As St. Petersburg cuts services, it pays thousands to stay in some organizations.

City officials say they must eliminate subsidies for arts and social service programs because tax money was needed to spare other vital city programs.

Here's some of what they want to save:

- At least 25 memberships to the Florida Recreation and Parks Association.

- A $25,000 membership to the Tampa Bay Partnership; a $24,902 membership to the Florida League of Cities.

- Memberships to the Florida Government Communicators Association, the Florida Records Management Association and the Florida Turfgrass Association.

In all, St. Petersburg is poised to spend almost $190,000 in membership fees next year. The city that says it is searching for any dollar it could save this budget season actually is planning to spend more on membership fees this year than it did last year.

Some of the costs appear necessary - the city couldn't run without memberships to the Florida Bar and licenses for engineers and accountants.

But just what are groups like the Florida Turfgrass Association and the Florida Records Management Association?

Save 8 library jobs?

According to their Web sites, the Florida Turfgrass Association was founded in 1952 to further the cause of turfgrass in the state.

And the objective of the Florida Records Management Association is to promote cooperation and the exchange of information among individuals and agencies interested in government records and information management.

The city's cost to join these organizations is just a few hundred dollars, but when coupled with dozens of similarly obscure groups, the numbers add up.

With the money the city is planning to spend on memberships, it could save eight full- and part-time jobs in the city's library system or support the budget of two dozen social service groups next year.

The City Council is scheduled to approve the city's final budget Sept. 13.

"And with those memberships come travels somewhere," said City Council member Bill Foster, who said he favors eliminating what he calls nonessential memberships. "Somewhere in the membership, there's a seminar, there's something going on where somebody has to get on a plane and go.

"If it's nonessential, it needs to stop," Foster said. "If it's not for something that we will gain something of significance for St. Pete, it has to stop."

City officials say they are, in fact, combing through membership costs looking for places to save.

Rick Mussett, a senior administrator overseeing city development projects, said changes could be coming. One of the items that potentially may be altered, he said, is the $25,000 membership to Tampa Bay Partnership, an economic development group.

"Any part of the budget is subject to change," Mussett said. "We're reviewing that right now.

Council member Herb Polson, at one point, had suggested leaving the National League of Cities, which costs the city about $12,000 annually.

Polson said the suggestion was made when there was no money for arts and social service groups, and he was trying to fund an emergency abuse shelter. Now that the city has reallocated $500,000 to help arts and social service agencies, Polson said he does not believe the National League of Cities membership should be eliminated.

But he said the city should consider cutting other memberships.

"You need to look between the lines," Polson said. "What could we do with that money if we had it back?

"Even if it's $5,000, it could make a difference."

The only way to see what groups St. Petersburg belongs to is to ask.

The specific dollar figures and organizations are not listed in the city's budget or a 150-page supplement. They had to be specifically requested, with some city departments providing more detail than others. Other governments that were contacted did not itemize membership expenses.

But St. Petersburg is not the only government that pays for memberships.

What members get

Most cities belong to the Florida League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Sister Cities International and other groups.

County governments belong to their share of associations and groups as well.

Larger memberships often come with discounts to conferences, magazine subscriptions and access to training materials.

The $25,000 membership to the Tampa Bay Partnership helps fund efforts to attract businesses to the city.

A $75 membership to IADLEST - the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training - provides training tips for police officers.

Membership to the Mayor's Council of Pinellas County - $135 - pays for monthly lunches.

Some alliances seem to make less sense than others.

The city of St. Petersburg has budgeted $1,000 this year to join the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, but cut $180,000 in funding to the St. Petersburg Area Chamber.

The city has cut more than $2-million in arts and social service funding, but kept the $1,675 worth of arts and culture memberships.

The city is considering divesting itself from co-sponsoring city cultural events, but still plans to join the Florida Festival and Events Association for $275.

Cutting ties with those groups would save about $3,000 - money possibly for a breast cancer walk-a-thon, a local AIDS group or a food pantry.

Or a potentially bigger tax break.

"The benefits of some of these affiliations are truly great," Foster said.

"There are some others that need to be looked at. For every $50,000, that's a job for a truly essential service we don't have to cut."

Mike Donila contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

FAST FACTS

Costs of joining

The city is planning to spend $188,634 on membership costs as part of its next budget. Here are some of the groups the city belongs to:

- Construction Owners Association of America: $350

- National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors: $375

- International Society of Arboriculture: $180

- National Association of Interpretive Museums: $225

- FileMaker Solutions Alliance: $350

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