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  1. St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg City Council makes its 2020 "wish list"

Council members shared their budget priorities as planning begins for the next fiscal year.
DIRK SHADD   |   Times  
An exterior view of the St. Petersburg City Hall pictured Tuesday evening (10/13/15)
DIRK SHADD | Times An exterior view of the St. Petersburg City Hall pictured Tuesday evening (10/13/15)
Published Jan. 17, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — First responders could be poised for a windfall next year.

City Council members on Thursday made their 2020 budget "wish lists," laying out their priorities for the next fiscal year. Many brought up issues like affordable housing, sustainability and economic development. But there was overwhelming consensus on one issue: that more money is needed for the St. Petersburg Police Department and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue.

"Especially as we're growing," said Council member Brandi Gabbard, "I want to make sure our force and first responders are growing at the same pace."

The wish lists are the first step in a budgetary process that will continue into the fall, when council members vote on a final package. The 2019 budget, passed in September, shattered city records. At $717 million, it was $200 million more than the 2018 budget, an increase driven in part by $120 million in debt the city incurred to improve its aging sewage and stormwater systems. The city's budget takes effect Oct. 1 each year.

Before council members listed their priorities, city staff warned council members of a possible turn in the economy. Assistant City Administrator Tom Greene warned there are signs the economy could be approaching "a recessionary period." The city, he said, is usually insulated from large economic fluctuations for about a year, but if it materializes, a recession will eventually impact the city's revenue. Recovery would also lag a year.

Budget and Management Director Liz Makofske said the revenue that will pour into the city's general fund is projected to go up by about $9 million from last year, to $273 million. Expenses, though, are also likely to go up. That means council members will face difficult decisions over the next nine months about which priorities get funded.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: St. Petersburg City Council takes a sobering look at future budgets

RELATED: St. Pete approves biggest budget in city history: $717 million

Council chair Charlie Gerdes framed the discussion in terms of wants and needs. Since it's so early in the process, he encouraged council members not to hold back, but instead put everything on the table so it can be whittled down later.

All the council members agreed spending more money toward police and fire was a need — "Capital N, N, N," for need, Gerdes said. Though, there were different ideas about how to earmark the money.

Darden Rice said staffing should be a priority. Gina Driscoll said she hopes the city can begin searching for a site and designing a new training center to replace the city's aging firefighter training facility.

She also said the mental health of firefighters is a concern. The police department has an on-site counselor for its officers; Driscoll said she wants a comparable position for firefighters.

"The toll that that type of work takes is not just physical, we see the kind of toll that can take on somebody emotionally and mentally," Driscoll said. "I think they deserve everything that we could possibly do with them."

Sustainability also appeared on many council members' wish lists. Rice asked for money for the city's Office of Sustainability and Resiliency, which tackles issues environmental, economic and social. Gabbard said she wants to continue implementing the Complete Streets program and work on a flood mitigation program for property owners who are in flood-prone areas.

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Most council members also talked about ways to make home ownership more attainable. Rice said she wants to create an affordable housing trust fund and allocate more money from the growing property tax base toward the issue. Gabbard mentioned an employer-assisted housing program for city employees.

And both Gerdes and Ed Montanari said they would like to double the amount of money the city puts in an economic stability fund — a reserve fund that can be tapped into to cover budget gaps — from $500,000 to $1 million.

Montanari also said one of his priorities is to explore ways to decrease the property tax rate, especially with utility rates rising, in part to pay for improvements to the stormwater and sewage systems.

Other priorities that were raised:

-Improving youth employment programs

-Maintaining sidewalks and ensuring sidewalk ramps comply with the Americans with Disability Act

-Combating food deserts in areas with limited grocery options

-Fighting the opioid crisis

Contact Josh Solomon at jsolomon@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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