Ah, Budget Season. That horrible time of year where city staffs across the state must justify every paperclip purchase. The state-mandated cuts of a few years ago plus the housing market crash means that no city seems to have enough money. Everyone wants a way to cut, and over the past few years some police departments became the popular dog to kick. Last year Gulfport hired the county to provide its dispatch services, and this year St. Pete Beach seems to want to offer up its entire police department as the sacrificial lamb. I’m not sure how I feel about that yet – my gut reaction is that I like our local officers and the things they do for us, but I promised our vice mayor I’d keep an open mind – but I do know this: we’re doing it wrong.
I don’t profess to be a financial planner or even an accountant, but I do know this: I’ve had to live within my means for most of my adult life. For me, cutting expenses never worked as well as increasing my income. In fact, it’s a recipe for disaster. Why? Because no one cuts their budget for fun, and by the time you’re looking at major cuts, you’ve already sacrificed most of the fun stuff. It wasn’t like cutting corners meant I put a lower octane fuel in my yacht. It meant I made my peanut butter sandwiches with day-old bread. We’ve all been there: I’ve lived on Spaghetti-O’s. I’ve scraped coins from under the seat to put gas in my car. I’ve bought one-ply toilet paper. But these are triage solutions, not a way of life. I finally adopted a two-ply standard: If I can’t afford Cottonelle, I need to find a way to make more money. No one deserves a lifetime of one-ply toilet paper.
A few years ago some cities may have had some fat to trim from their budgets. Now, though, not so much. They’re already living, pardon the metaphor, with one-ply toilet paper. Instead of looking for a way to afford the good stuff again, though, they’re still slicing and dicing, looking for nickel–and–dime savings when what they need is to make more money.
I think St. Pete Beach can avoid the potential political firestorm of outsourcing the police by looking around and thinking about how they can make more money rather than spend less. I don’t know anymore than anyone else living here, but I see some easy solutions that could help us funnel money into city coffers.
Granted, my first idea isn’t exactly a big revenue booster, but it would still save money – and our police. We could look at combining forces with Treasure Island’s police department. The St. Pete Beach Police Department is almost exactly halfway between John’s Pass and Pass-a-Grille channel, there are no bridges, and the two cities could combine forces, half expenses and still retain a great deal of local control. We get to keep a dispatch, a holding cell, and both communities get to see the same officers they know. Extra cars can go for auction, and we’ll have some redundancy with other services.
As for actually making money, I think we’ve forgotten we have a great asset all around us – the water. We have one transient dock coming down the pike - why not add fuel sales? In 2011, Gulfport made $600,000 off fuel sales in its marina, a great facility but further off the beaten path than our one transient dock. How much could we make?
As long as we’re recognizing that our beach is awesome, why not charge people to come over the Bayway? It costs $6 per car to get onto Sanibel Island. I’m not suggesting we charge that much, but why not $2? Over 20,000 vehicles cross that bridge every day. I know many of these folks are residents, and they should get a free pass, but even if half are tourists and they pay $2 each, that’s $20,000 a day the city would gross. Of course, locals may opt to cut through Gulfport and South Pasadena, but to the tourist who just spent a couple thousand bucks just to get here, what’s another two dollars? Our biggest asset is our sand, and I think people will pay to see it.
Of course, once they get here, parking, clearly, is at a premium. We could use some of that toll money (not all of it, just some, settle down) and build a parking garage and charge for parking. You can’t tell me there isn’t enough vacant land here that we can’t do that. How about $15 a day to park, paid to an automated attendant? While we’re at it, let’s up the cost of those meters, too, since residents don’t have to pay for those if they have a sticker. There are more cars than meters and, if I’m remembering high school economics correctly, supply and demand dictates that things in short supply but high demand cost more.
Finally, why not regulate and license landlords? I have had my share of great landlords as well as horrible ones on the beach and I can tell you that, as a tenant, anything the city can do to help keep slumlords off the beach would be much appreciated. It wouldn’t mean a great deal of money, but perhaps if landlords had to pay a fee for an inspection it would help deter some of the lesser-quality landlords. Homes without a homestead exemption could carry a higher fee for code violations than homesteaded properties, too, and if the police have to answer calls at a rental property more than once a month, the owner pays a fee.
I know these ideas aren’t perfect. In fact, I’m pretty sure the city won’t consider a single one. But we, as residents, put up with a lot to live in paradise. Instead of heading for a pauper-like existence, we should see an economic benefit in exchange for the wear and tear on our roads, drunk spring-breakers singing karaoke at midnight, and past-their-prime Europeans wearing Speedos. We should be balancing our budget on the backs of our visitors, not ourselves. But we’re not even looking – all we’re doing is comparing prices on cheap toilet paper.