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St. Petersburg makes a wish list amid tough budget year

City Council members listed their funding priorities for 2022, which could bring a cash crunch.
St. Petersburg City Hall. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
St. Petersburg City Hall. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Jan. 21

ST. PETERSBURG — Amid Florida’s pandemic shutdown last spring, officials drafting the city’s 2021 budget said any coronavirus-related cash crunch wouldn’t be felt. At least not this year.

Property values had actually risen, and the experts said any pandemic crunch wouldn’t come until 2022.

Looking toward 2022, the city faces a $12.2 million budget gap in the city’s main operating fund. Expenditures are set to rise while property tax revenue is projected to fall.

The numbers were unveiled Thursday during a City Council committee meeting where members read off their wish lists — items that, in a perfect world, they’d like to see funded. The annual meeting is the informal kickoff to the following year’s budgeting, and it gives the administration insight into the council members’ minds before staff begins crunching numbers.

“It’s hard to believe that we find ourselves here again already,” said Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin at the beginning of the meeting, referencing the pandemic, which has now spanned two budget years. She added that the budget process is “where we breathe life into our values.”

Budget officials emphasized that the projections were preliminary and based on conservative revenue and expense calculations. They factored in a 2.5 percent dip in property tax revenue, which equates to almost a $3.5 million loss. They do expect to make up about $3 million of that from another bucket of revenue generated through things like business taxes, service charges, fees and state sales tax. More accurate numbers will come later in the year.

The bulk of the budget gap comes from an anticipated $9.4 million increase in expenses, mostly for planned raises and benefit increases for city workers. Debt payments also rose by about $800,000, partially due to the city’s adoption of body-worn cameras for the police department.

A budget gap of $12 million isn’t unprecedented at this stage in the budget process: in January 2018 the projected gap for the following fiscal year was $11.2 million; in 2019 it was $13.6 million; and last year it was $8.4 million. As required by state law, all those budgets were balanced later in the process before they were approved.

With that context, council members read off their wish lists — which include items that range from continuing to support ongoing city programs to major new capital projects.

There was widespread consensus on several public safety requests: to replace fire trucks that are old or were taken out of service, and to begin construction on a new fire station in Jungle Terrace. Several council members agreed with a request by Chair Ed Montanari to request federal funding to hire 25 more police officers, which would take the department from 575 to 600.

Last year, the city redirected federal funds that were to be used to hire 25 new officers to fund its Community Assistance Liaison program, which will send social services workers to certain nonviolent emergency calls instead of officers.

Montanari also said he wanted $500,000 to replace the police department’s firearms.

Six council members mentioned more funding for museums, including the St. Petersburg Museum of History (for unanticipated expenses related its expansion) and the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum (to hire a staffer dedicated solely to fundraising).

Montanari and Brandi Gabbard both said they want more money for flood mitigation in Shore Acres and up by Gandy, neighborhoods within their respective districts that are prone to flooding. Robert Blackmon and Gina Driscoll both asked for funding to improve water quality in lakes and streams, like in Jungle Lake, which has been contending with water quality issues. Gabbard sought money for the city’s Greenhouse to add a position, while Driscoll sought to add a position to the city’s Office of Sustainability and Resiliency.

Deborah Figgs-Sanders requested money to add more sidewalks so people don’t have to walk in the street and for a litter pilot program, “because all areas of the city do not get the same attention with regard to cleanliness.”

Darden Rice and others advocated for continued funding to achieve the city’s 10-year affordable housing goal, and for spending $200,000 on replacing shelters at bus stops.

Several council members also sought to acquire more money for council members to travel to events and conferences.

Montanari acknowledged that budgets are “always a balance of priorities and limited resources.”

Amy Foster, who spoke last, said he agreed with most of the requests made by her colleague and kept her list short.

“With COVID and everything going on, there’s going to be a lot of emerging needs,” she said.

Lisa Wheeler-Bowman didn’t attend the meeting.

Mayor Rick Kriseman will submit a recommended budget to City Council by July 15. The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.