As the St. Petersburg mayoral race enters its final month, the Rick Baker campaign is making a case that Rick Kriseman is bad at managing the city’s budget.
In a series of emails and tweets, Baker campaign manager Nick Hansen blasted Kriseman for dipping into reserves while the city takes in record levels of revenue.
And Tuesday night, Baker himself went hard at the incumbent’s spending at a candidates forum sponsored by the Disston Heights Civic Association (moderated by this reporter).
While the first question of the night had focused on Kriseman’s proposal to raise wages of city workers to $15 an hour by 2020, Baker ignored the question to instead launch an assault on Kriseman’s fiscal rectitude, charging the incumbent with being over budget by $35 million on both the new Pier and the city’s new police station.
Baker then pointed out that tax rates in the city were up 14 percent from when he left office in 2010.
“We have had more tax revenues than ever in the history of this city, yet he’s going into your emergency reserves to balance the budget right now,” the former two-term mayor said. “That is a bad omen for the future moving forward.”
As he had in the past when hit with the charge, Kriseman responded calmly. He said that he had simply borrowed from the reserves with a plan to pay that money back.
Kriseman said: “I would much rather have taken the money out now and gotten the work done, then delayed the work that we needed to do to try and get ready for this storm season, which we’ve done very well because we got the work done.”
He then claimed Baker dipped into reserves in 2009 and never paid the city back, adding that Baker’s millage rate was “considerably higher” during his first four years in office (2001-2005) than his own.
Baker called that “doublespeak,” countering that, yes, the millage rate in St. Pete was initially higher when he first took office in 2001, but he had brought those rates down by 20 percent.
The forum did have more than just economic talk.
Both candidates clashed on Tallahassee having the authority to pre-empt Florida cities on enacting gun control regulations. Baker said it made sense for the state to set the laws so that Pinellas Park, Largo and St. Petersburg other Pinellas communities didn’t all have different sets of gun laws.
It was wrong for the Legislature to treat St. Petersburg the same as Eustis (on the eastern end of the I-4 corridor in Lake County), Kriseman responded.
On the issue of sanctuary cities, Kriseman supports the “idea” of protecting the undocumented from being arrested simply because of their status, but by law, the city did not have authority on such measures. Anybody who violates the law would be arrested and transported to the Pinellas County jail, he said.
“Individuals have to abide by the law, cities have to abide by the law,” said Baker. “And I do not support sanctuary cities.”
Baker was asked if he would challenge the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate funding for the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which supports a wide range of urban-renewal projects. He said he absolutely would.
“Anything that we can do to help the urban center of our city is important and I think the federal government has a role in it,” Baker said, adding that he would venture to Washington, Tallahassee or anywhere else to protect the interests of the city.
Kriseman used the opportunity to blast Baker for being silent when it comes to any of President Donald Trump‘s statements or policies.
“Mr. Baker hasn’t spoken out one time against anything that our current president has said, no matter how offensive,” he said, nor has he heard any opposition against cutting federal programs (though, in fact, he just had).
Unlike most other candidate forums this year, Tuesday’s event was held in western St. Petersburg, far from downtown and Midtown, the location of a majority of the other mayoral forums. As such, the candidates were given time to make a lengthy opening statement (seven-and-a-half minutes) on issues such as the Pier, a stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, Midtown and sewage infrastructure, so that the remainder of the discussion would focus on other topics. Despite that, the Pier and sewage matters did surface throughout the night.
Election Day is Nov. 7.