St. Pete’s neighborhoods at center of mayor’s race

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Long known as a city of neighborhoods, St. Petersburg is losing its neighborhood associations – and losing them fast.

In the last five years, the number of active neighborhood associations has dropped from 120 to less than 60, according to the Council of Neighborhood Associations.

The hemorrhaging has yet to stop. For its last two meetings, the Council of Neighborhood Associations has failed to get a quorum.

Says Kurt Donley, CONA’s president: “This is hurting our city a lot.”

The plight of St. Petersburg’s neighborhood associations is now a flashpoint in the mayor’s race, where challenger Rick Kriseman has thrown his support behind refunding the city’s neighborhood grants program.

During the current fiscal year, the grants program budget was zero. 

At last week’s City Council budget hearing, Kriseman testified in support of the city fully funding the program, at $250,000.

Mayor Bill Foster’s proposal, included in his fiscal year 2014 budget plan, is for $30,000.

The final public hearing and vote on the budget is set for Sept. 26, where the issue of neighborhood grants is expected to come up again.

Some city council members – including Leslie Curran and Karl Nurse – complain that neighborhoods are not a priority for Foster, which hurts local businesses and tourism. Foster counters that the tough economy forced him to make tough budget choices.

Re-funding the neighborhood grants may not stem the decline either.

Donley said that in recent years the city imposed a set of “burdensome” rules for winning neighborhood grants that discouraged most of the grassroots groups from applying. “It turned into this complicated process, with [city staff] grading projects before even accepting them,” he said.

Donley said that the last time the grants program was funded there were only two participants that sought the money.

For his part, Foster has pledged to remove the hurdles that have kept associations from applying. Under the terms of the grant, neighborhood groups provide “sweat equity” and the city matches with dollars.

The funds are used to pay for reconfiguring roads for traffic calming, turning abandoned city properties into parks, and erecting signs to identify neighborhoods.

Foster has noted in budget hearings that the economy, more than any factor, led to program cuts in many areas, including parks and recreation, and grants for the neighborhood groups.

“My recommended budget, with its proposed amendments, watches the pennies while maintaining service levels, investment in public safety and quality of life issues,” Foster told council members last week.

If the neighborhood grants are largely restored through contingency funds, Donley said he will push for spending some of the money to reactivate the dormant associations.

He estimated it will cost about $500 per association to blanket neighborhoods with leaflets and hold two startup meetings.