Depending on when you tuned in, there is in the vicinity of a $10 million shortfall projected for next year's city budget in St. Petersburg, Florida. But the People's Budget Review is finding that after several years of budget cuts, a large number of residents would rather see a property tax increase, than more cuts.
You read that right. The People's Budget Review has provided an electronic survey for residents to voice their opinions. In some sense, it's the same issue that has surfaced in Greece, Spain, Ireland, and a good chunk of Europe. What is the best governmental response to a deficit - austerity or stimulus? Granted, St. Petersburg doesn't have its own bank, so it has fewer choices than a sovereign nation. But the people are weighing in, and they are tired of austerity. So far, 4200 people have responded. The large majority, 76%, are in favor of a property tax hike to maintain quality services in St. Pete. And they aren't timidly going about their business. They have made large showings at three budget summits.
I admit it. You'd be hard-pressed to get me to attend a budget summit meeting. And yet, on Wednesday night, I schlepped up to St. Pete to cover this meeting. That's because, it has the taste and feel of real democracy - a flagging institution. People are coming together to define their common priorities. They are doing this before the initial budget is pulled together, so the timing is good. In prior years, such budget meetings were attended by a handful of people. But this year, this third meeting, held at the Manhattan Casino, was full. As you would expect, residents expressed a variety of opinions. Some veered off topic. Some made it personal. Some pointed out the unfair disparities between two sides of town. But the overwhelming message was the attendees' desire for their city to invest in their neighborhoods, their businesses, their youth, and the arts. And, many are comfortable, if that requires a small increase in taxes.
Generally, raising taxes is a very unpopular move. I fell in step with Mayor Bill Foster as we headed out to the parking lot. He pointed out how unlikely it was that he, as a Republican, was willing to talk about a tax increase to fill the City's $10 million dollar hole. And yet, that's exactly what is happening. As an outsider, my interpretation is that the people are flexing their muscle and that their representatives are listening. This is a surprising turn of events. The recent recall election in Wisconsin brought home the power that money has in our democracy. I don't claim to know what the future will bring, but there is a glimmer of hope in St. Petersburg.
Ben B The Truth spiced up the evening with some home-grown, spoken-word poetry. Although he definitely went off topic, the audience appreciated his passion. Ben has been bringing poetry to St. Petersburg schools for the last couple of years and he is about to take it on the road. Although poor audio quality prevented the inclusion of all voices in the video above, please enjoy Ben's performance below.
Related article: March 20, 2012 People's Budget Review campaign