The Gulfport City Council held the first of its workshops featuring public comment on Thursday, drawing roughly 20 residents for the initial discussion of City Manager James O'Reilly's first draft of the 2011-2012 General Fund/Capital Improvement Program and Budget proposal.
“In my opinion I think fees are an aggressive approach to raising revenue,” said Gulfport resident Bob Newcomb, the first speaker in the public session of the meeting. “I think it has a much harder impact on lower, middle class people than the tax increase. The other danger of course is when revenues and valuations begin to increase the fee stays the same, the tax fluctuates, and I'd like to see it in taxes as much as possible rather than fees because it's simply a hidden tax.”
He also pressed for economic redevelopment to increase funds, possibly adding a staff specialist to do so, particularly for the 49th Street redevelopment area.
Resident Lee Stapella suggested to the council that the Gulfport Trolley runs excessively and that its use should be re-evaluated.
“Like a shark in the water the trolley never stops. Hour after hour, day after day, circling and circling for what purpose?” she asked. She suggested letting the trolley contract expire, referring to it as a “blood sucking leech” on city funds and that the council consider beachfront vendor agreements as an alternative for revenue.
Following the two public comments Mr. O'Reilly began discussion of the General Fund Program for the coming fiscal year urging guidance to expedite the process.
“It doesn't serve much of a purpose for me to draft a budget in a vacuum, bring it to you and then we rehash all these things again,” he announced in an attempt to gauge public opinion on the level of town services, changes in services and methodologies in the budget.
“We acknowledge there's a $1.6 million shortfall, but at the same time there are also expectations of the community to provide services,” he said. “The level of services equates to our cost to deliver them and that's changing.”
He referred to a graph on the budget proposal noting anticipated revenue of under 8.5 million for the city and expenses of nearly $10 million.
Early in the discussion Mr. O'Reilly illustrated that the $16.95 residential recycling rate, plus commercial rates, generate approximately $1.7 million in revenue for the city each year. A ten percent rate increase to $17.99, he suggested as an example, could increase that amount to roughly $1,870,000 possibly making up for some of the deficit.
Gulfport Public Works Director, Don Sopak, then spoke to the council, alerting them that the recycling rates of surrounding cities are approximately $20.64 per resident on average, putting Gulfport $3.69 below the local average. No further discussion followed in regards to the recycling rates.
Council Member Barbara Banno echoed Mr. Newcomb's suggestion to accelerate the 49th St. redevelopment area.
“We can't keep saying that we're going to redevelop 49th Street and not allow anything to happen,” she said. “If we can start focusing on that area I think that would give us opportunity to bring in new revenue for the city.”
Later in the meeting Council Member David Hastings acknowledged that it is difficult planning the next budget at this stage of the current year, especially with an unstable real estate market, and that he does not want to increase the mill rate.
“I would have a really tough time going back to my ward and say I'm in favor of any increase in real estate taxes,” he said. “My ward probably pays fifty percent of the total real estate tax burden in the city.”
There was also discussion of reducing some of the functions of the and while there is also going to be a need for a new vehicle for the Fire Department in the near future. Other possible expenditures discussed for the coming year included drainage on 49th Street, Shore Blvd. parking improvements, refurbishment of city park pavilions and repairs at the marina.
The council discussed many of these items as part of the proposed Capital Improvements Program and Budget and will continue to do so at future workshops and meetings.
Late in the workshop Mr. O'Reilly brought up the grant that the city applied for to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Loan Program (CWSRF), which provides low-interest loans for the construction of pollution control facilities. He clarified that Gulfport has been added to the state's list of potential participants in the program, that the city is in the process of meeting environmental requirements for it but that there is not yet any commitment from either side to enter into agreements with regards to loans.
He mentioned that Gulfport has considered an extensive sewer system evaluation but that the state first requires a project plan to be submitted for consideration. According to there is an infiltration problem throughout the city where excess water after rains gets through manholes and into the city sewer, taxing the system as it runs through the process of removing it for treatment. He said that during the rain storm earlier this month, the system had to flush 177,000 gallons in one day for treatment to St. Petersburg.
“That trend kept on for ten days,” Mr. Sopak said, “so we do have an infiltration problem.”
He said a master plan must be developed to identify the worst areas of infiltration to make the necessary corrections. If a loan is granted from the state the city would begin re-payment approximately six months after the work is completed.
Council Member Hastings suggested that if this is a revolving line of credit that perhaps the city could pay for the cost of the project with its reserve fund rather than pay the interest rate to the state.
“There's no sense in paying someone two and a quarter or two and a half percent interest... if we don't need to do that,” he said.
Mr. Sopak said that the city will be re-bidding engineering services in preparation for the evaluation.
The workshop lasted just over three hours and the draft proposal of the General Fund and Capital Improvement Program and Budget are available on the Gulfport web site under Council Meetings.
The next council workshop is scheduled for Monday, May 16 at 3 p.m. at Gulfport City Hall.