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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014

St. Pete mayor’s budget aims to boost city


— More money for the arts and economic development, help to rehabilitate blighted homes in poor neighborhoods, a pay raise for city workers and no tax rate hike.

After years of mostly austere budgets under predecessor Bill Foster, Mayor Rick Kriseman on Tuesday unveiled details of his first budget as city leader, promising more investment in neighborhoods and more spending to attract jobs and help small businesses in 2015.

Among the highlights are $800,000 to boost the city’s sometimes anemic marketing efforts, $350,000 to go toward rehabbing homes in South St. Petersburg, and an extra $100,000 for the city’s economic development office, which council members say needs more resources to compete with Tampa to attract new companies.

The call from local artists for more help also has been heeded with an additional $100,000 set aside for the arts. An extra $175,000 will be allocated for neighborhood projects and three new code enforcement officers hired to crack down on run-down properties as the city looks to turn around blighted streets. The Greenhouse, a one-stop facility for small businesses and entrepreneurs to get help, will receive an extra $50,000.

“This budget will be a reflection of our vision for the city,” Kriseman told city council members during a workshop at City Hall.

Most of the new investment will come from an anticipated increase in property values, further evidence that the local economy is rebounding. City officials have budgeted conservatively for a 3 percent increase in the tax base, which would bring an extra $2.5 million. Early estimates from the Pinellas County Property Appraiser’s Office suggest property values could rise by 5 percent.

Kriseman’s budget promises no increase in the property tax rate, but some residents may pay more in taxes if their property increases in value.

Even so, that will leave the city with a $4.1 million gap between revenues and outlays that budget officials will work to close as they finalize the budget.

City officials still have to negotiate pay raises with police, fire and city workers’ unions, but when pressed by council said the raise will be about 2 percent, which would cost an extra $2 million. A similar raise was awarded to city employees this year, which for many city workers was their first in five years.

In recent years, council members clashed with Foster, who refused funding requests he said would put the city in financial difficulty. That led council members last year to carve out an extra $300,000 from Foster’s final budget to spend on neighborhoods, a youth summer employment program and a program to help families in extreme poverty in South St. Petersburg.

Kriseman’s budget was a welcomed change, they said.

“I want to applaud the administration for walking the walk instead of talking the talk,” council member Charlie Gerdes said.

The budget was not all good news.

Officials estimate the city’s workers’ compensation costs will rise by $3.2 million, a 45 percent increase over this year as a result of higher claims, mostly from police officers and firefighters.

Also, city subsidies for Tropicana Field will increase by $161,000 to $1.3 million, while the Coliseum will require a $267,000 subsidy, an increase of $52,000.

Overall, officials estimate expenditures will total $216 million in 2015, up roughly $4 million from last year but still short of the $224 million in 2008 before the real estate crash wiped millions of dollars off the city’s tax roll.

“We know there is a long way to go to get where we restore the wholeness of the functions the city once enjoyed, but we think we are headed in the right path,” Deputy Mayor Kanika Jelks Tomalin said.


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