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Despite protests from worker unions, St. Petersburg City Council approves $224 million budget

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council approved a $224.3 million budget Thursday, but not before dozens of city workers complained of unequal treatment and stalled negotiations over a labor contract.

The unanimous vote kept the city's property tax rate unchanged for the third straight year at $6.77 per $1,000 in assessed value. For a $150,000 home with a $50,000 exemption, the tax bill would be $677. With rising property values for most homes, the average homeowner will pay more, even though the rate hasn't changed.

Mayor Rick Kriseman has proposed an across-the-board 3 percent raise for city workers. But workers have objected to the city's plan to eliminate automatic raises or "steps" for many positions.

The police and fire unions have retained automatic annual raises in their contracts, a benefit that antagonized many other blue-collar workers, who say they also perform hazardous, thankless jobs. Several wastewater employees told council members that they worked long hours in raw sewage during the weeks of heavy rains this summer.

"The next time sewage backs up into your house, call police and fire," said Kathy Kirkpatrick, a wastewater department employee.

Council members, who don't negotiate labor contracts, said they sympathize with the workers, especially when the city has more money on hand than in recent years.

"I have serious concerns about the message we send to our employees," council member Amy Foster said. "It's time that we invest in our human capital in our city."

City human resources director Chris Guella said a bargaining session is scheduled for next Wednesday.

Other residents asked council members for money to repair a leaky roof and aging, infrastructure at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center on 18th Avenue S.

City staff said repairs had been made and more money was available in the budget. When staff mentioned that $6.149 million in Penny for Pinellas funds had been earmarked for a new Shore Acres Recreation Center, a loud groan came from the crowd.

Enoch Davis received about $1 million in upgrades about a decade ago, staff said, but council member Wengay Newton said he wondered why it wasn't on the capital improvement list for the next five years.

"It's not even in the book," Newton said, referring to budget.

Together with the city's capital improvement, enterprise, debt services and other funds, the city has budgeted $505.6 million for its fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The city budget wasn't the only point of contention in the 3½-hourlong meeting. City Council members also complained about a 3.75 percent hike in utility rates. Consultants explained that debt service and maintenance required the increase, which would add $2.11 to the average bill, but the explanation didn't alleviate concerns that utility bills have gone up each year since 1997.

The council voted 5-3 to approve the rates after staffers told them that the utility's bond ratings and debt service would suffer if the rates weren't raised, triggering bigger increases in coming years.

"It feels like a trap," said Chairman Charlie Gerdes, who ended up voting for the increase.

Council members Steve Kornell, Darden Rice and Newton voted against the measure. Rice said she didn't want to reward the wastewater resources department, which has come under criticism after it dumped 16.5 million gallons of sewage into Boca Ciega Bay and Tampa Bay last month.

The council had considered raising the wastewater rate to speed sewer repair but dropped the idea after Kriseman put an additional $500,000 for infrastructure improvements into the budget.

Other budget highlights include:

• $930,000 for 12 police officers for downtown patrols.

• $500,000 to bolster reserves, which now total more than $46 million.

• $3.6 million for new the Fossil Park Fire Station.

Several council members reminded residents that this budget was much fatter than the lean years of the recession. Council member Karl Nurse, who joined the council in 2008, said the budget cuts had been painful.

"Being on the upside is a lot more fun than it was riding down that hill," Nurse said.

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