What makes cities special is what we stand to lose

By BILL FOSTER Special to the Times
Published May 5, 2007

The other morning, I read with interest an op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times by Rep. Marty Bowen of Haines City, and I discerned two major points: 1) the author has no respect for the elected officials of Haines City or Polk County, nor an appreciation for the uniqueness and charms of her community; and 2) the author, and many of her colleagues in Tallahassee, have absolutely no clue what it takes to make our communities safe and livable.

I do, however, respect their views and skepticism over the stewardship of local governments, and I believe local officials received the message from the people loud and clear: Keep your hands out of our pockets, live within your means, and prioritize between needs and wants. Local governments will accept this mandate, and rise to the new challenges of providing quality services with significantly less money. We have no choice. However, don't be drawn into this mind-set that there will be little impact, or that our tales of cuts are simply "scary stories." They are real.

I have had the privilege of working on the past nine city budgets for St. Petersburg. In every case, I received input from residents and business leaders. For eight years, we cut fat and chipped away at our millage rate, and upon final public hearing, little mention was made of escalating ad valorem taxes. Actually, most speakers were there to defend their programs and request more funding.

In 2006, we finally heard from a disgruntled public, and the complaints were as follows: 1) I can't afford to pay for my homeowners insurance; 2) my property assessment is too high; 3) you all waste too much money; 4) I am a new homesteader, and the system is not fair; 5) where is the relief for the nonhomesteader?; 6) we need more money for social services. This message has resonated all the way to Tallahassee, and the "fix" is in process. Our legislators have "fixed" the insurance crisis (my premium just went up 25 percent) and are now working to "fix" local governments' ability to raise income for basic services.

It doesn't seem to matter that the swelling of local government budgets began with unfunded mandates and drastic cuts in federal and state assistance. When Rep. Bowen asserts that "no institution is closer to the people than the Florida House of Representatives, " she signifies that she is out of touch with reality. When something happens to affect the quality of life of my citizens, I hear about it at all hours. I can assure you they are not calling Tallahassee.

I am all for cutting government waste and taxes, but this Legislature has failed to recognize that this canyon of ad valorem inequity took decades to create, and will take more than one year and drastic cuts to fix. For some Florida cities, essential services will remain unchanged. In St. Petersburg, for 2007, we generated $103.6-million from ad valorem taxes, but we spent over $115-million on police and fire alone. Sure, we made up the difference. Water, sanitation, storm water - you pay as you go. What is at stake is everything else that makes your community livable - what we call "quality of life."

Gone will be downtown festivals, parades, markets and concerts in the park. At peril will be youth sports activities, before and after school programs, summer teen camps, summer youth employment, senior adult programs, museum grants, neighborhood grants, Chamber of Commerce support, performing arts grants (i.e. Florida Orchestra), public arts, social service funding, library funding, park maintenance, recreation programs, beautification projects, playgrounds, athletic fields, pools, boat ramps, sidewalk and road replacement.

True, some will see these quality of life programs as luxuries we cannot afford. Still, others will miss seeing their children playing soccer on a city field, or basketball in a city gym. As cities are forced to charge sport leagues for the actual cost of field maintenance and lighting, gone will be the league. As each legislator knows, there are no more free lunches for anyone. I will miss the quality of life and charm of every Florida city, including Haines City, but I will save a little on my tax bill. I will use my savings to pay for the increases in my homeowners premium, and if anything is left over, will purchase a basketball hoop for the neighborhood. Charity does begin at home.

Bill Foster is a member of the St. Petersburg City Council.