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  1. Opinion

Editorial: New public financing to help poor St. Petersburg neighborhoods

St. Petersburg officials have proposed an innovative tax strategy to fight stagnation with job training and public subsidies for private businesses and property owners. Mayor Rick Kriseman, above, wants city and county approval by June so cash can begin to flow next year.
St. Petersburg officials have proposed an innovative tax strategy to fight stagnation with job training and public subsidies for private businesses and property owners. Mayor Rick Kriseman, above, wants city and county approval by June so cash can begin to flow next year.
Published Apr. 17, 2015

Opportunity has bypassed much of south St. Petersburg, leaving many largely African-American neighborhoods coping with unemployment, run-down housing and crime. Now city officials have proposed an innovative tax strategy to fight stagnation with job training and public subsidies for private businesses and property owners. It has the potential to help transform the area, and City Council members and county commissioners should embrace it.

The plan would create the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, a legal designation that allows city officials to set aside property tax revenue increases in the district and plow them back into targeted improvements. Called tax-increment financing, this technique often jump-starts major downtown projects like Tampa's convention center, Clearwater's harbor marina and — if it ever gets built — St. Petersburg's new pier.

The sprawling South St. Petersburg taxing district — bounded roughly by Fourth and 49th Streets, Second Avenue N and 30th Avenue S — would focus on smaller-scale projects and human capital. Because property values are nearly stagnant in the largely residential area, the city estimates first-year spending at only $123,122. That should grow to $133 million over the district's 40-year term.

Though tax-increment financing has often benefited tonier parts of town, its original intent was to lift blighted areas that lack easy access to private investment. Roughly a third of south St. Petersburg's 34,000 residents live below the poverty line, including 45 percent of children. Sixty percent of housing units are at least 50 years old and often riddled with leaky roofs, faulty wiring and malfunctioning air conditioning units. The recession clobbered property values, reflected by boarded-up homes and underwater mortgages. Low-income residents cannot cover the cost of expensive repairs, much less new construction.

The tax-increment strategy will create a new pool of money for loans, grants and rent subsidies for those who would improve housing and bring commerce into the community. It will not be a back-room boondoggle dangling tax breaks to companies that produce more promises than jobs. It will be an integral part of the city's budget cycle. Advisers, staff and the council will set criteria and pick among competing proposals each year — all in the sunshine. Projects that fail to meet measurable benchmarks will lose funding.

Some county officials have urged a go-slow approach, perhaps replacing a straight 40-year commitment with a 20-year first phase, followed by second 20 years if all goes well. That might be a reasonable tradeoff for a quick start.

Such large pockets of poverty hurt the entire area. Police and court costs rise. Education becomes tougher. Companies seeking a skilled and stable workforce look elsewhere.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wants city and county approval by June so cash can begin to flow next year. It's the right thing to do, and it should produce long-term benefits.

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