Former St. Petersburg, Florida mayor Rick Baker was invited by Sagamore Institute to deliver remarks on his book, The Seamless City, at a 2012 nonprofit conference co-sponsored by Sagamore Institute and the Office Depot Foundation.
Watch his remarks here or read them below.
I thank you for coming. You are here because you believe in the same thing that I believe, which is building your community. Communities don’t just happen; they happen because people like you push your communities on to the next step. So congratulations for your presence here because that means that you believe in that.
I’m going to talk a little bit about my book, because my book is about building cities. My book is called The Seamless City. It’s about how you go about redeveloping cities. And in order to do that, I’m going give you the perspective of the mayor.
St. Pete is a pretty good-sized city and we have a strong mayor form of government. What that means is the elected mayor is both the political leader and the CEO of the city government, so he or she is responsible for hiring and firing everyone that works in the city. That’s what we have in St. Pete.
I have always seen the job of mayor as three jobs: running the business of the city, dealing with the crises, advancing your vision for the city.
When you run for mayor you run because you have a belief in what the city could become and that needs to be articulated in advance. The risk is that when you become mayor, you get bogged down in employee issues or involved in the crises so much so that it overtakes you. You can get bogged down in things that will not let you achieve your vision. So while you’re dealing with the business and the crises you’re continually advancing your vision.
As for business in our case, we had about $550 million budget, 3000 employees and 34 departments. So you’re running everything from the parks and rec department to sewer to the police department. There are some things that I put in place for the business of the city that have to do with advancing vision as well: You have to balance budgets. I had nine years worth of budgets. We reduced tax rates because we had the higher tax rates in the country for cities our size. So over nine years we reduced our real estate tax rates by 20%. We reduced the size of our government. We reduced our staffing by 10%, which we did mostly through attrition. At the same time, we were increasing the number of uniformed police officers on the street. Of course all of that was not easy to do.
We were also committed to improving government services. We did that with a city scorecard. We met with all the departments and asked them if they were serving the city better this year than last year and then I asked them how they knew. That opened up a discussion that resulted in 160 graph-based, performance measures. These allowed us to look at the past compared to the present so we could see what was getting better. When I took office, after about 4 months I wasn’t getting reports—I got the crime stats and the rainfall. So I developed a scorecard for the city that we put online so the world could see it. My report was the same as my report to the community.
When I first got in office I asked someone what the number one complaint in the city was and they said it was for sidewalk repair. I asked them how long it takes to fix a sidewalk and they told me it takes 30 months—two and a half years to fix a sidewalk! We were able to reduce the repair time to 1-2 weeks for the last eight years.
But that made me wonder how long it took to respond to a 911 call. So we started measuring how long it took to respond to a priority one police call and it was 7.1 minutes when I took office with the national standard as 7 minutes. It was 5.8 minutes when I left office. We kept asking: How long does it take to respond to an EMS call? Fire call? How long does it take us to issue a building permit? How are schools doing? So we put all those measures in place to run the business of the city. That was an important first step.
The second part of the job relates to crises. Crises come big and small. The first stage of a crisis is chaos. In this stage everything anybody tells you is wrong, so you have to be careful on how you respond to bad information. During the second phase you gather information and start to respond to the crisis. (This all happens in loops because you have multiple phases of the crisis). The third phase of the crisis is blame, and the blame comes in two pieces: the first part is the blame for whoever’s fault it was and then the second part is on the folks that responded and how badly they responded to it. I always tell folks not to walk away from the crisis until they’ve gone through all three phases. Then they have to evaluate how they did. Always learn from the crisis.
So you have to run the business, respond to the crises and advance your vision. I believe that cities should run with a strategic plan just like any business. Even though it’s going to be approached differently, you have to evaluate that way. The strategic plan should always start with a mission. In St. Petersburg our mission was to build the best city in America. Actually, I think every city should have that as their mission. You should always have a quest for excellence. If you have a quest for excellence you will find that resources will always flow to you. Under our mission we had five strategies: improving public safety, improving neighborhoods, economic development, supporting public schools, and improving services of government operations.
Public Safety: In the last 10 years, public safety has taken on multiple levels: hurricanes and natural disasters, but also terrorism. We have both a hurricane and terrorism emergency plan. Then there’s your core job of keeping your streets safe. That’s the most important job you have. During my time in office, our murder rate was the lowest since they started taking FBI crime statistics. We increased the number of police officers and we put in a street crimes unit. But I will tell you that even if the murder rate is the lowest it has ever been one is still too many. Protecting your city is the number one job.
Neighborhoods: You want your city to be a nice place to live. In fact, I was able to attract more businesses because of the quality of life of the city than because of any incentive package. People want to be where it’s a nice place to live. We have 110 formed neighborhood associations in the city and developed neighborhood plans for each them. Each one is different: there are some poorer neighborhoods that their issue is that there are people selling drugs. Other neighborhoods may have issues with speeding or loud music. You have to put together the plan that is tailored to the needs of each community. While in office, I would meet each week with six to eight neighborhood presidents for about two hours.
You also have bigger projects throughout the city that improve your neighborhoods and the quality of life in general. The year before I took office, St. Petersburg was the least safe place in the country for pedestrians. We did a six-month study to identify the problems. Then we had to redevelop the city to be a pedestrian-safe city. We set out to have the best bike-path system in the southeastern U.S. Today, the city is the “bicycle center” of Florida. We have six bike-paths that emanate from the city and a bike-map much like the ones you’ll see for subways.
We planted 20,000 trees with 6,000 of them flowering. We put in playgrounds within a half-mile walk of every child in the city. When I took office, we started with 40% of our children within a half-mile walk of a playground, but when I left office we had about 80%. We also added dog parks and skate parks. It’s a quality of life thing.
Public Schools: I didn’t want to try to run the schools and I didn’t want the school folks mad at me, so we came up with a lot of programs to help the system. First of all I sat down with each superintendent and showed him the plan. Then I asked them if they wanted us to implement it. If they did we would do it; if not, we wouldn’t. Virtually every time they would say they did. We also had “Doorway Scholarships.” We told our 6th grade, free-and-reduced lunch students that if they maintain a certain GPA, stay crime free and drug free, have good attendance and conduct between 6th and 12th grade that they would get a 4-year college scholarship. We gave away 1000 prepaid tuition scholarships while I was mayor. More importantly, the kids who went through that program had a 93% graduation rate.
I learned as mayor that many schools, if they need resources, don’t know where to get them. What we started to do was create partnerships with schools and businesses. I recruited corporate partners for the schools. These corporate partners could provide mentors, tutors, volunteers, and in some cases money. By the time I left office, every school in the city had at least one corporate partner. We also had teacher housing loans where teachers could use state housing money to get a $20,000 loan if they taught in the city and lived in the city. If they had lived in the city for seven years they never had to pay the loan back.
To improve our schools we had the “Mayor’s Top Apple” program. Schools were graded on a standardized grading scale of A, B, C, D, F. If the school increased a letter grade or maintained an “A” they would be the Mayor’s Top Apple School. Those principals would get slew of prizes including a $2,500 bonus all privately funded. We went from having zero “A” elementary schools in 2001 to 16 “A” elementary schools in 2009. The bottom line is that by coming together through partnerships with the entire community and becoming part of the public schools you can make a lot of difference.
Finally, economic development. There was a very focused effort at making downtown a place that people wanted to go. Downtown St. Pete now has one of the most vibrant nightlife scenes in Florida. We brought in events including an Indy Car road race, running events, and a blues festival among others. Each event draws 20,000-25,000 people for three nights. Culture is a big part of it also. We brought the Chihuly Glass exhibit and we have a big Salvador Dali museum and a fine arts center. We focused on making the city a cultural center.
Midtown was the poorest part of our community. It had the highest crime rates and lots of urban decay. It became the main focus of my first four years. This is the core meaning of a “seamless city.” The whole idea is that you should never have a place in your city where you cross a seam, whether that seam is a railroad track or neighborhood boundary. You should never enter a place where you don’t feel safe. In order to do that, we had to focus a considerable effort to toward midtown. As a result, it became one of the best turnarounds in any city in America in the last 10 years.
I could go into detail on how we did that, but I’ll give you one example that speaks for itself. I am an admitted Jeb Bush Republican, and when I ran the first time the chairman of the African People Socialist Party won the midtown precincts. When I ran for reelection four years later, I ran against the chairman of the Democratic Party and won 90% vote in the midtown precincts.