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CITY ABLE TO AVOID BIG CUT IN SERVICES

Libraries will remain open, children will continue to play at city recreation centers, and police will still hunt down criminals.

After months of haggling and number crunching, the City Council on Thursday night approved a new budget devoid of major service changes.

"We've been able to do some pretty interesting things this year to make this budget work in a very, very difficult time," said council member Herb Polson.

Still, the $207 million general fund budget includes some changes reflective of the harsh economy.

The city's police budget, buoyed by a $2 million federal grant, declined by nearly $1.7 million overall, down from $86.8 million in 2009. Water bills will go up by 2 percent.

Low-income residents at the city's Jamestown Apartments saw minor rent increases of about $24 a month.

But, for the most part, the city balanced its $18 million deficit by eliminating excess positions and cutting back on minor expenses. Nonunion employees earning more than $50,000 were dealt wage freezes.

The city kept its property tax rate at $5.9125 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

Most service fees remained unchanged. Residents will not see an increase in their sanitation bills. City harbor users won't pay higher docking fees. Parking and library fines haven't changed.

The budget passed with a 7-1 vote. Council member Wengay Newton cast the dissenting note.

Newton scolded city leaders for eliminating five firefighter positions, raising utility fees and declining to set aside dollars for a summer youth employment program.

"I won't support it. They keep hoarding money and saying it's for the greater good of St. Pete when everyone else has to suffer," said Newton, referencing the city's nearly $300 million in reserves. "People are taking pay cuts, people are getting fired. ... I just don't understand it for the life of me."

Mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford also urged council members to consider tapping into the reserves during the two-hour public hearing. She showcased a bar graph that illustrated millions in surplus dollars.

Mayor Rick Baker praised the council for not raiding the city's reserves. He has argued that money should not be used for recurring expenses.

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

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