New diversity, equity and inclusion office included in 2023 St. Petersburg budget

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ST. PETERSBURG — A new office focused on diversity, equity and inclusion is included in the Sunshine City’s proposed budget for the 2023 fiscal year.

Mayor Ken Welch is seeking $319,000 to fund the salary and benefits for an equity, diversity and inclusion officer and one administrative assistant under his office. Their jobs would be to review existing city policies and practices to make sure there’s an even playing field for all employees, as well as a program that would keep the city accountable for any measures undertaken to further that goal.

The creation of the office is one of the recommendations made from a structural racism study commissioned by the city. Last year, the City Council voted 6-3 to accept and address the study’s findings.

Last year, the Charter Review Commission sought to add a chief equity officer and funding to promote programs that would eliminate gaps based on race and ethnicity to the city’s charter. Both initiatives were rejected by city voters on the 2021 municipal ballot.

Deputy Mayor Stephanie Owens told City Council members Thursday morning that the equity officer will also explore training and resources to expand diversity, inclusion and cultural awareness in the municipal workforce and in neighborhoods.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck process but the effort will be led by the person who is directing the office,” Owens said.

The mayor’s budget also includes funding for four full-time positions in procurement and supply management to implement recommendations from the city’s disparity study that found that companies run or owned by white men disproportionately received more business and the biggest contracts.

The base salary for the equity officer would be up to $160,000, making it one of the highest-paid positions in city government, and $80,000 for the administrative assistant. It has not been determined to whom those employees will report.

Later on Thursday, the City Council voted 6-2 to set the property tax rate and public hearings for the 2023 budget. Those hearings will be held at 6 p.m. on Sept. 15 and Sept. 29.

Property value growth in St. Petersburg was among the highest in Pinellas County at 14.4 percent. The city is proposing rolling back the property tax rate slightly, which would save roughly $13 for every $100,000 of assessed value compared to last year.

Still, that would net the city $20.5 million more in property tax revenue than the current year. If the property tax rate isn’t rolled back, it would net an additional $3.5 million.

The council’s vice chair, Brandi Gabbard, voted no, instead asking to keep the property tax rate steady. She said she wanted to use the money for quality of life initiatives.

“I don’t feel like there is a real compelling reason to reduce, except sure, maybe it gets us political points in the community to say we reduce the millage,” Gabbard said. “It’s a really minor amount to the person when it’s a big amount to us at the city.”

Council member Richie Floyd, the other no vote, wanted to use the additional funding for those who need the money, versus landlords who have equity in their homes.

“This is not going to help 40% of our city who are renters,” he said. “It’s not going to.”

Council chairperson Gina Driscoll said the budget strikes a good balance and leaves money in people’s pockets to spend on their own needs.

“If we as a government have to tighten our belts a little bit so our residents keep a little bit of their hard-earned money in their pockets, then let’s do it,” she said.