SDM saw a mailer for the Peter England for Mayor campaign and it got us to thinking about what we know about Mr. England’s service as Vice Mayor of St. Petersburg, which is…nothing, until now.
SDM spent some valuable time researching and found a trove of information about Mr. England’s service to St. Petersburg so we decided to share some of it with you in these pages. Because there is so much to review, we will be publishing two parts. Today’s post will cover his first term and the next part will cover his second term.
The First Term
Peter England’s political activism appears to have started in 1979, at the very end of the Carter years. Late in 1979, England decided to seek public office. He was young and worked for a St. Pete bank. He had (and still has) a beautiful wife and family; his wife June ran a tight ship.
Despite not being endorsed by at least one paper in the area, England ultimately won a spot as Councilman for District 5 after beating back a challenge from a Black opponent who complained of some ballot chicanery. (Check out an England ad by clicking here.)
It appears England joined a city facing serious economic challenges, including an enormous deficit. Of course, this was the early 1980s when double digit inflation wreaked havoc on government budgets. Changes in the federal budget caused England to work on saving Amtrak service to St. Petersburg.
To cure its own budget problems, St. Petersburg considered hiking utility taxes and recreation fees though the Council was split on how to address the city’s revenue and expenditure imbalance with England “supporting the increase.”
The council ultimately chose to raise property taxes by 7.7% along with increasing water, sewer and garbage collection fees. (The budget story continues here (scroll up and right) and here and includes an amusing reference to a Carter-era rule limiting thermostat’s to 78 degrees, which made an already difficult budget literally “heated.”)
Though the final budget story doesn’t lay out the votes, England appears to have supported the tax and fee increases when he said in a prior meeting that “[t]he selective cuts we can make are not going to have a major impact on the bottom line. So we have to look at (increasing) revenues.” (Emphasis in the original.)
The budget battle seemed to take a toll on the council’s comity when a couple months later a shouting match broke out at City Hall. England is reported to have “exploded,” calling a fellow council member a “one-man wrecking crew about this council’s credibility with half-truths and innuendos.” England told the official he “was sick of it.”
As 1980 progressed, England involved himself in reinvigorating a portion of the St. Pete waterfront by joining on a trip to see how other cities were doing it. But the city council’s propensity to travel during a budget crisis caused a minor rift when it was extended to visiting the home towns of city manager candidates.
Nevertheless, England went about the city’s business, voting on zoning changes, dealing with a proposal to close a municipal pool, calling for evening meetings to allow more public participation, and working with federal officials on a dredging project. Amid the drudgery of council service, England had to defend himself against an ethics charge that was ultimately decided in his favor.
In heat of summer, St. Pete’s budget problems continued to plague the council. At a tense meeting on August 29, 1980, England rejected a call to cut costs to balance the budget. England explained his position in clear terms:
I think we have a reasonable budget. If we don’t bite the bullet and go for a major tax increase, this city is going back to the dark ages. I don’t think anyone wants unnecessary services, but unless we make some difficult moves on the property tax, it’s going to go beyond cutting things that are nice to have. We’re going to get into the meat and the bones.
But the city council’s budget wasn’t always popular. The city’s decision to reduce bus services caused the city council to feel the protest at home. After a bombardment of phone calls, the council changed course and restores some of the night routes. This would not be the last time England would change course on a budget decision.
Despite the city’s budget troubles, England proposed a pay increase for the city’s manager and several months later, a raise for the city council. England said he didn’t “have any apologies for bringing [a raise for the council] up.”
1981 saw another tough budget year, which coincided with the legislature’s adoption of the convoluted truth-in-millage law. When the city issued its tax bill, taxpayers erupted in fury, which caused the council to rethink its budget strategy. According to reporting by the St. Petersburg Evening Independent newspaper:
England, who had earlier this week said he was satisfied with current 1981-81 (sic, should be 1982) budget proposal said he heard the word: “It caused me to rethink and relook at just exactly what we are going to spend this year. Everybody’s going to have to give one last agonizing reappraisal at what we are going to spend next year…The question is, what services are you willing to give up?”
The budget wasn’t the only trouble facing the city. In December of 1981, England took another stand when he pushed his fellow council members to approve a controversial HUD apartment complex to provide affordable housing.
Then as 1982 dawned, lighter issues attracted the council’s attention. On a 4-3 vote, the council permitted drinking beer and wine at city parks for certain events. England said he supported the measure because it legalized “something that’s already taking place.”
Also in 1982, England objected to a cut to the city’s public information office and later found a compromise that made the city’s financial disclosure law less burdensome on England and his fellow elected officials.
The end of 1982 also marked a transition period for England. The 1983 elections loomed only a few months away and before the year was out, England would become a major player in the issue that would dominate his second and ultimately incomplete term as a in office: The Quest for Major League Baseball.