St. Petersburg City Council approves 2022 budget, greenlights Science Center

ST. PETERSBURG — Despite a rolled back millage rate, property owners in St. Petersburg may see their property tax bill increase as a result of increased property values.

City Council on Thursday approved a $711 million budget for 2022. It reflects a 7.86 percent city-wide increase in property values that brings in another $9 million for the city and covers 96 percent of public safety costs, the city said.

Science Center gets $2.3 million

Council also approved upping the allocation for the Science Center from the city’s Weeki Wachee fund to $2.3 million. It gave council member and mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon’s project another $200,000 to be spent on a feasibility study.

Council members had previously expressed apprehension over not having a feasibility study for the Science Center, which closed in 2014 and has been vandalized. Blackmon warned that a feasibility study could delay the process and lose out on $500,000 in state funding that must be used by June 30, 2022. Council voted that the feasibility study could be done by city staff or a consultant.

In a letter sent to council this week, Mayor Rick Kriseman said he would not work to transfer the Science Center property from the city’s utility department back to the city until he sees a detailed renovation estimate, documentation that shows who will be involved in operating the facility and their financial ability to operate and maintain the facility through their lease term. If not, the building would be demolished.

Council member Brandi Gabbard objected to that.

“As a council member, it’s a no on demolishing the Science Center at this point and time,” she said. “I did consider that to be a threat by the mayor.”

“I appreciate you saying that,” Blackmon said. “That’s exactly why we need to move on this.”

The item was approved in a 5-2 vote. Council members Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman reiterated their disapproval, taking issue with the process and lack of consideration for affordable housing, and tried to table the item. Council member Amy Foster was absent.

“We have too many questions and no other project will be there to come before us like this,” said Figgs-Sanders. “We’re sitting here just winging it as we go.”

Could St. Pete bring back early voting?

Council also got a history lesson on why St. Petersburg doesn’t typically open polling places for early voting for municipal elections. Council member Darden Rice asked for a presentation on the issue. Last month, she, along with Blackmon and city council hopefuls Mhariel Summers and Richie Floyd, stood on the steps of City Hall calling for early voting.

There used to be a state law that mandated early voting, explained assistant city attorney Bruce Pettigrew, but that law changed in 2007. Just 3 percent of votes came in through early voting that year. Since then, early voting was only held during the 2017 municipal general election.

As Pettigrew put it, it’s “the exception rather than the rule.”

But the city could make that exception the norm. He said the city has the money and the Supervisor of Elections office has agreed to it. The council could mandate early voting by putting it in city code or build a structure in city code to ensure that a decision on early voting has to be made in advance of the election. Council could also address the issue at the budgeting process.

The council directed city attorney’s to draft an ordinance. It will be discussed at the Public Safety and Infrastructure Committee meeting on Oct. 14.