Poverty in South St. Pete is the focus of city budget during public forum

06/13/13 Janelle Irwin
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St. Petersburg residents poured into the Enoch Davis Center in mid-town St. Pete Wednesday evening to weigh in on the city’s budget. During the final public review before the mayor submits his proposed budget on July 1, residents were focused on issues affecting the low income areas of South St. Pete. Sharon Russ pushed for a change in the way the city uses neighborhood stabilization money set aside to rebuild homes in blighted communities.

“I would like the city to do more to maybe make the area more affordable, especially when it comes to housing, so that the income where people are paying the rent will be adjusted to the type of income that’s there.”

Home rebuilt through the neighborhood stabilization program are located in areas plagued by poverty and crime. St. Pete resident Kurt Donnely asked city council and the mayor to stop what he called institutional racism where laws and policies disproportionately affect poor and minority communities.

“Last week, the ACLU put out a report that said that there is a 4-1 arrest disparity for blacks verses whites when it comes to marijuana nationwide. Unfortunately here in St. Pete it’s a 5-1, so we’re actually 20% worse than the national average. There’s 22,000 white pot smokers in this city and there’s 7,000 black pot smokers in this city, but each year we arrest 1,000 blacks and only 500 whites. That math is not right. If you can’t apply the laws equally, get rid of them.”

Another resident and activist Maria Jose Hayes pushed for improvements to South St. Petersburg neighborhoods by working on creating more job opportunities. But she cautioned about doing that through attracting businesses like Walmart who hire for predominantly low wage and part time positions.

“I make $12.50 an hour. I work for a private company. I get benefits. I’m a single mom with two kids. I live paycheck to paycheck. Now, think about the person that works at Walmart that gets paid maybe $8 an hour, works 40 hours a week and is in the same situation as I am. That is not a way to live.”

There’s already a proposal on the table called agenda 2020. That would reduce the number of South St. Pete residents living at or below poverty by 30% by 2020 and by 80% by 2045. The plan was supported by State Representative Darryl Rouson and several residents including Tamara Howard.

“This request for funding is a small investment in the fight to greatly reduce the poverty rate in South St. Petersburg and is drop in the bucket compared to the hidden cost that poverty creates for this city each and every year.”

There was also a large contingent of city workers demanding pay raises. Many argued they were being passed over for even basic cost-of-living adjustments while police officers and firefighters continued to see their pay rise. Kathy Kilpatrick has worked with the city for 25 years in the wastewater department. As some attendees were filing out to catch a Rays game, she lamented that it was time for the city to make sure other workers were taken care of.

“We would feel a lot more like supporting the Rays games if we got a raise and felt a little more like the community. By giving certain groups raises and step increases, that doesn’t sell our city very well to the rest of us. I brag about working for the city of St. Petersburg. It’s because I’ve been with them for a long time and it’s kept a roof over my head and food on my table and I’m proud to say that, but I also think I should be equally paid – equal, fair as everybody else.”

During an interview today, City Council member Steve Kornell who represents many south St. Pete residents, said he supported many of the proposals laid out by his constituents.

“I will not approve any budget that does not include regular raises for our employees … the other one I heard was youth employment. What I said there was, I’m in favor of increasing funding this year. I would like to try to double it $250,000 to $500,000 this year, but I don’t want to keep doing the same program the same exact way. I want to work with the school system to create a partnership where the jobs are used as an incentive for the young people to at least attend school.”

Mayor Bill Foster will report to city council on July 1 with a balanced budget. Council members and the public will then weigh his plan during two meetings in September before a final budget is approved.

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