Sunday, December 21st, 2014

Bill Foster and Rick Kriseman clash over St. Petersburg economy

Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman faced off in the Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 mayoral debate on Oct. 15, 2013. Photo by Chris Zuppa | Tampa Bay Times.
Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman faced off in the Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 mayoral debate on Oct. 15, 2013. Photo by Chris Zuppa | Tampa Bay Times.

St. Petersburg’s mayoral candidates addressed the city’s economic health during Tuesday’s Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 debate. But competing rhetoric left viewers with a tale of two cities

Mayor Bill Foster said things are looking up, pointing to the city’s unemployment rate. Challenger Rick Kriseman said small business and jobs have suffered since Foster took over.

PolitiFact Florida examined each candidate’s points.

Unemployment rate

Foster claimed: "Unemployment in the city of St. Petersburg is below the state average."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts out monthly unemployment reports for the country, states and metro areas.

But using the data to compare cities with states is like analyzing apples and oranges.

Why? National and state data is adjusted for the season, but local data is not.

It seems picky, but the distinction is important in Florida, where the economy is more susceptible to seasonal swings. Temporary but expected jolts to the economy, such as snowbirds coming during cooler months and teachers not working for the summer, are smoothed out for the state but not the city, leaving it with a less precise figure.

But it’s also the best data we have. It shows that Florida’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 7 percent for August, or 7.1 percent without the adjustment.

And St. Petersburg? Its unemployment rate is 6.9 percent, according to the state. In fact, the city’s rate was lower than the state average for most of 2013.

We rate Foster’s claim Mostly True.

Small businesses

Kriseman said: "Unfortunately, since Mr. Foster’s been mayor, we have less small businesses in the city of St. Petersburg."

There are a number of different ways to define "small business," which makes it hard to get an accurate count.

Even when experts agree to define a small business by number of employees, there’s no consensus among experts about which number to use.

"I think if you ask six economists what’s the size of a small business you’d get six different answers," said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse.

The U.S. Small Business Administration says any business with fewer than 500 employees fits the bill. By the SBA definition, over 90 percent of businesses in the city would be considered small.

Kriseman campaign manager Cesar Fernandez referred us to the city of St. Petersburg Business Tax Division, which collects taxes from each business but does not define a small business.

Instead, all we could do is look at the total number of businesses and the total amount of tax money they pull in for the city.

Using that metric, Kriseman is wrong. The number of businesses and the tax revenue they generate is up since 2010 — though not by much.

We rate this claim False.

Number of workers

Kriseman also said: "There are less people employed in the city of St. Petersburg than there were prior to (Foster) taking office."

The jobs picture for the nation and state has improved in recent years. Wouldn’t St. Petersburg follow the same trend?

In short, it does.

Foster took office several months after the recession ended in June 2009. Just over 103,000 St. Petersburg residents were working in January 2010 —the lowest total in at least a decade.

But federal data for July 2013 show the number of employed residents is up to more than 115,000. State data show 116,127 employed residents for August. 

Granted, that’s still short of the size of the city’s workforce pre-recession. But it’s not a reduction from when Foster took office. We rate this claim False