Aaah, budget season. My least favorite of Gulfport’s seasons (you may recall the others: Gecko, Election, and Festival) is upon us. I had the dubious pleasure of sitting through the first of several council budget workshops last week. I don’t envy city staff, and I don’t envy council. Whereas our neighbors to the west have little public input (despite ample opportunities) and, consequently, little public conflict, in Gulfport it seems we behave like a pack of stray dogs trying to share one bloody bone.
I suspect it’s because we don’t have enough bones to go around whereas over on the sandbar, they do. They get what they want, including thousands of dollars in city support for private events, a sparkling pool and well-used community center, and a bevy of other amenities that fall just outside Gulfport’s grasp. We just don’t have wildly valuable commercial property or enough opulent homes to fill the city’s coffers.
That, of course, doesn’t mean people don’t have needs. Ask different folks in the city and they will all tell you how they feel Gulfport should spend its money. I take no issue with that. Councilwoman Jennifer Salmon, for example, wants an aquatic center, and while she and I disagree on what would best serve the residents in that center, I can see where that would help draw families to Gulfport. I see a lot of Gulfportians at the St. Pete Beach pool. It’s more money than the city has right now, but I still like the idea – and not just because I swim, but because I think it would make life better for its residents.
Some people, though, take the city’s generosity too far.
There’s a great quote, “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” I’d like to point out that in Gulfport, we’re at the point where the libraries are holding bake sales and the businesses could, to some people, appear to be getting all the bombers they want.
While I could not support local business more – we’re funneling our income into several Gulfport businesses at an alarming rate right now – I’m concerned at the city’s propensity to subsidize special events. In the grand scheme of things, the $17,000 that Gulfport will spend this year on parties (not counting fireworks) isn’t a lot of money. I also understand that business organizations like the Chamber feel as though its members have paid the fee to the city in the form of taxes and deserve to use it. Before the Chamber members start stitching together my VooDoo doll, please hear me out.
First, go to the library and then go to the Gulfport Multipurpose Senior Center. We don’t have enough money in the budget to make a youth librarian full time, despite our new librarian’s so-far successful plans to drag our too-small library into the 21st century and get outside funds to enhance it. Across the street at the Senior Center, Gail Biron and Rachel Cataldo do not, to my knowledge, stop working long enough to pee or sit down and eat a proper lunch. Look at the parks department; if they don’t get more staff soon they’re going to have to teach the squirrels and ducks how to run a lawnmower. The city staff is stretched to the breaking point, and don’t say, “well, they’re paid a salary/they get overtime.” All the money in the world won’t give these public servants more time with their babies or a full night’s sleep.
Volunteers staff both buildings, and private groups – the Friends of the Library and the Gulfport Multipurpose Senior Center – fund things like the reading garden and the plethora of activities at the Center. These two buildings and the quality of life they promote best typify the spirit of Gulfport. Yet they’re chronically underfunded.
Next, consider Springfest. The Chamber of Commerce president stopped me at dinner the other night and let me know in no uncertain terms what she thought of my printing the vendor fees a few weeks ago in the paper. While I think the Chamber has made great strides towards helping businesses of late, I do not apologize for printing the chamber charges. Here’s why:
The city subsidized Springfest to the tune of $600. Not a lot of money, right? Well, that depends. If you take the property taxes paid by the mayor, the ward three councilmember, and the ward two councilmember, it still doesn’t pay for the city’s contribution to that event. The president tried to tell me the monies were TIF (Tax Increment Financing) monies; I would like to point out that that TIF money still comes from tax dollars, and it could just as easily gone for paving and milling roads or hiring staff for the library or senior center, which are both inside the redevelopment area supported by the TIF.
I love Geckofest as much as anyone, and it’s cool that there’s always something happening here. But I love our library, too, and while government should never be hostile to businesses, I’m not sure that it’s appropriate that fundamental city services – think roads and sewers – get neglected for business needs.
So if you’re paying attention to the budget talks, please, ask your council why it subsidizes these parties while places like the library and senior center don’t get what they need unless private citizens contribute the money, which means, effectively, they’re being taxed twice. If we all agree the $600 isn’t significant, perhaps the chamber could raise those vendor fees to cover it. What would that be, $10 extra a table for the 70-odd vendors?
I’d rather see my tax dollars spent on fixing our roads, hiring more staff for helping our kids read, and taking care of our seniors.
Is that so awful?
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.