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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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City council seeks peek at St. Pete budget

— There is a new mayor in City Hall, but the annual battle over the city’s budget may be as feisty as ever.

Council members are demanding more time to weigh in on the city’s $217 million general fund budget, which must be approved by the end of September.

At issue is an extra $973,000 dollars, a late windfall from higher-than-estimated property tax revenue.

At a meeting last week, council members said they want input on how that money will be spent and they do not want to wait until Sept. 4 — the city’s scheduled penultimate public hearing on the budget — to find out how Kriseman plans to spend the money.

Kriseman’s proposed budget promises more funding for many initiatives council members said had been neglected during the recession, including homelessness, the arts and economic development, help to rehab blighted homes in poor neighborhoods and a pay raise for city workers.

But more controversially it also cuts the police overtime budget by more than $600,000 and is the first full year the budget includes Kriseman’s new executive team, at least six of whom earn $90,000 or more.

“I will not wait until the public hearing,” Council Vice Chairman Steve Kornell said. “I’m not pleased with a budget that adds over a million in staff, basically in the mayor’s office and administration, and cuts $600,000 of police overtime.”

Council members decided to hold a special meeting Aug. 28 to agree on additional budget priorities, but that will only leave city budget staff with one week to finalize the budget. City Administrator Gary Cornwell said each council member will have a chance to meet with the administration prior to that. The Mayor’s Office declined to comment Monday.

The actual budget windfall may be less once estimates for other city revenues are adjusted, including communications service taxes, which are expected to fall. Councilwoman Amy Foster said that may be as low as $400,000.

“I’m of the philosophy just because there’s $400,000 left, it doesn’t mean we have to spend it all,” she said.

The discrepancy in the city’s budget is the result of city officials building the budget on preliminary tax rolls that showed property values rising by an average of 6.9 percent. In fact, the actual average rise certified by the tax appraiser ended up at 8.1 percent.

Kornell said he was anxious to avoid a repeat of last year when one heated evening budget hearing dragged on until close to midnight as council members carved $300,000 out of former Mayor Bill Foster’s final budget to spend on neighborhood improvements, training programs for youths and projects to tackle poverty.

“It was a nasty process last year,” Kornell said. “It made people angry because we had to pit one thing against another.”

The council’s priorities likely are to remain economic development, neighborhoods and youth programs.

Councilman Wengay Newton said he would like to see more spending on summer jobs and after-school work programs for at-risk youths.

Kriseman’s proposed budget includes $25,000 more for the city’s summer jobs program, bringing its annual funding up to $275,000. The program provides a subsidy for companies that hire teens for summer jobs.

“There is a lot of need that was not funded or addressed,” Newton said. “We have got do more in creating opportunities, i.e. jobs that will occupy them and keep them away from these crimes that require police attention. I don’t think $25,000 will do it.”

The final two public hearings on the city’s budget plan are scheduled for Sept. 4 and Sept 18.

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