The St. Petersburg City Council met Thursday with members of the Budget and Finance Department to outline priorities and appropriation wish lists as the city prepares its 2023 budget. Council members said focal points were giving city employees raises, increasing pedestrian safety, bolstering the fire department’s fleet and continued funding of affordable housing.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch kicked off the meeting.
“I love the smell of spreadsheets in the morning,” the Mayor said before discussing the importance of a budget as a value document. “It talks about what our values and priorities are. At the end of the day, that budget document reflects that balance between the needs, the resources and our priorities.”
Welch assured Council members their priorities would be his priorities as they took turns reading their lists of asks.
Most of the lists sounded pretty similar. Many topped their lists with giving raises to city employees. Council members said it’s especially urgent as rent and inflation in the region is rising. Employees are still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and last year were in overdrive as they responded to one of the most massive fish kills in the city’s history.
“The past year, they’ve gone through it,” Council member Richie Floyd said. “We’ve seen that they are just as essential as anyone else in the city to making sure things function appropriately. At a time when it’s becoming more and more difficult to live in our state, and in our city particularly, we (must be) doing everything we can for our workforce to be able to afford the things that make life so good in the city.”
Salary increases were a priority in the 2022 budget as well. But city workers have been waiting for those raises since October as collective bargaining talks have stalled. Council Vice Chair Brandi Gabbard said if the city can’t reach an agreement with workers, it might be time to bring in someone who can. She said with the start of a new administration, now is the time.
“It’s a fresh look. It’s a fresh time. And I think that there is some staffing and leadership within the department that represents us in that bargaining that I think we need to look at,” Gabbard said. “Then we make sure we have the right people at the table going forward to make sure that we go in with an idea of collaboration and not necessarily an idea of an adversarial outcome.”
Gabbard and others also said they would like to see a housing assistance program to keep city employees as city residents.
Pinellas County last year set a grim record for most pedestrian and bicyclist deaths, nearly doubling the number of deaths recorded in 2020. Council members also agreed that more investment needs to be made in street improvements. That includes repairing and replacing aged and failing lighting and signals; getting all the city’s streets paved; installing more sidewalks; and ramping up commitments to complete-street projects and Vision Zero.
Vision Zero is a push to reduce traffic fatalities to zero. Complete streets is a design concept that gives equal priority to pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and strap hangers alike.
“The city really needs to look at taking that Vision Zero approach that the loss of life is too high a price to pay for just getting around the city without a car,” Council Chair Gina Driscoll said. “This is an area where we can truly take action that matches our values.”
Members also want to add apparatus and a training facility for the Fire Department. Specifically, many Council members advocated for a new rescue truck at Station 13 at 11600 Roosevelt Blvd. N.
“Station 13 is one of the busiest engines in the city,” Gabbard said. And one of the challenges they have is being able to respond appropriately and timely to issues that happen on the Howard Frankland Bridge, just due to size of vehicles.”
Gabbard said a rescue truck at the station could ease the strain on Stations 14 and 7 that often have to step in when 13 can’t respond.
Affordable housing also made it back to the priority list. Rent in the bay area has increased at one of the highest paces in the country. Last year, the City Council explored the possibilities of declaring a housing state of emergency and establishing rent control. Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders said the city needs to get creative when it comes to the issue.
“I would really like for us to focus most on more additional multifamily units and nontraditionals in providing assistance, ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) and those things,” she said. “But most importantly, looking at incorporating our own emergency rental assistance program. I think as a city we need to implement something creative to help our residents with that.”
The City Council will put together a list of requests to officially submit to the budget department. And before the budget goes into effect in October, the department will meet one-on-one with Council members to go over how their priorities are reflected in the budget.