ST. PETERSBURG — A grass-roots group of activists and union and neighborhood association members has formed a political committee, a first step toward its plans to force a referendum on whether residents should have a direct say on how a slice of the city’s budget is spent.
The People’s Budget Review is pushing to change the city charter to give residents control over up to 3 percent of the city’s general fund, currently about $6.3 million. Group leaders filed papers Tuesday with the city registering as a political committee so it can begin working toward gathering more than 16,000 signatures, the total required for a citizen’s referendum to be placed on the ballot.
They plan to collect about 20,000 signatures by next summer to put the measure on the November 2015 ballot. As a political committee, the group would be able to collect political donations for a referendum campaign.
“We want to put this idea before the voters to let them decide if they want more say over their tax dollars and have a direct voice about how budget priorities are determined in St. Petersburg,” said Aaron Dietrich, an organizer with the group.
Known as participatory budgeting, similar initiatives have been adopted in hundreds of European and South American cities. The United States has been slower to adopt it with only a handful of communities doing so, including Brooklyn, Chicago and Boston, but none in Florida.
Supporters of the process say it increases people’s involvement and enthusiasm for local government and leads to better decision-making because residents have a better idea of their community’s needs.
Typically, residents attend meetings in their local neighborhoods and suggest ideas for how the money could best be spent. Those ideas are worked into proposals with cost details and then voted on by residents.
City leaders, however, say the budget process already is inclusive.
This year, three public meetings were held in different parts of the city to gather more public input for the city’s 2015 budget. All three meetings were attended by Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin. Two more public hearings are planned before the budget is finalized.
“We appreciate their enthusiasm for the process and their willingness to participate, but the administration believes we provide ample opportunity for the public to participate in the budget process,” said Kevin King, Kriseman’s chief of staff.
The People’s Budget Review has proven an effective campaigner in the past with more than 100 supporters packing city hall during then-Mayor Bill Foster’s final budget meeting to call for more spending on neighborhoods, youth training and projects to reduce poverty. That led the city council to carve out $300,000 from Foster’s budget for additional spending on those priorities.