Committees and Covetousness

Joshua Black

Podcast: St. Petersburg, FL – Local Area News

A glimpse into how government funding perpetuates problems rather than solving them.


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Welcome to the 13th edition of the Saint Petersburg Florida Area News podcast for the year 2019. I’m your host, Joshua Black, and this episode will focus on the Saint Petersburg City Council committee meetings held on April 11. There was a mini-council meeting after the committee meetings, but it was simply awards and presentations. I suppose government officials boasting about the results of wasting our money can be newsworthy, but I wanted to focus on their plans, not necessarily the past.

The first committee of the day was Budget, Finance, and Taxation. The committee heard from staff regarding the proposed tiered rate system for stormwater collection rates. Staff presented the video presentation that city residents will see when they enter the portal to learn about their new (mostly higher) rates. Please note that these tiers are on top of the rate increases that will be recommended by Stantec for normal usage.

The Stantec representative stated that the mapping done to establish the new tiers to which properties belong was done via satellite, with minimal work done on the ground. Thus, as councilmember Ed Montanari brought up while chairing this committee today, they could easily have missed features like houses on stilts or other features that would reduce the measured impervious square footage. It appears that roof overhangs would cause discrepancies, too. All residents should measure their own property to mitigate against adverse results. It would be better, though, if council simply decides to drop the plan altogether.

Montanari also noted that the current water bill sent to residents already states that the stormwater treatment portion of the bill is calculated by impervious square footage. Staff stated that they would adjust the language of the statement to reflect the switch to tiered rates.

Councilmember Darden Rice (District 4) asked about mitigation. She has a sump pump at her home, as well as a direct tie in from her gutter to the stormwater collection system. This doesn’t reduce the amount of water runoff, though, so she would not get a credit. Staff did answer Montanari’s follow up question by stating that any residents who have already installed rain barrels or other runoff reducing features would receive as much credit as if they had purchased new.

The committee then heard a report regarding the Social Action Fund. The Social Services Allocation Committee (8 citizens of Saint Petersburg and 1 council member, currently Amy Foster of District 8) recommended changes to the way that moneys are disbursed to agencies seeking reimbursement from the city for expenses related to helping the homeless. The Homeless Leadership Board will now be funded via the general fund, leaving more funding for other organizations.

But those organizations will now be forced to compete for the money, with the top funding level now being raised to $50,000. The change to competitive bid process addressed a concern held by both Foster and by Steve Kornell (district 5) that too many organizations were popping up instead of working together and a lot of money that should have been spent on helping the poor was instead spent on salaries for these organizations.

The committee approved the changes unanimously and adjourned about 40 minutes early.

The next committee, as usual, was the Public Services and Infrastructure Committee. Michael Dema from the city’s legal staff presented the reasons behind the proposal to change the language in the public parks part of the city charter to allow the city to accept funding for conservation easements without needing a new referendum every time. The Boyd Hill Nature Preserve is seeking funding from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (a state agency) to complete a maintenance project. The agency has made this particular grant contingent on the conservation easement, and no waterfront property or city park can receive a “permanent disposition” without a citywide referendum.

This proposed charter amendment would only allow this sort of permanent disposition for nature preserves. Dema did mention to the committee that he hopes the city will consider expanding the possibility for other city-owned properties such as parks to receive this sort of treatment without referendum. I think it’s a slippery slope that could increase the cost of real estate in the city even more. I wouldn’t do it, but no council members voiced any opinion about expanding the charter amendment to include anything other than waterfront property.

The next discussion in the committee was regarding animal control. Doug Brightwell from the Pinellas County Animal Control gave a description of his agency and its role. The agency is a citation only authority. It cannot arrest anyone or create a criminal record. If a criminal act is done with an animal, the agency connects with the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in the municipality in order to coordinate the government’s response. In cases of citizen complaints, the agency will need two or more citizens willing to testify in court to the nature and facts of the incident in order for a judge to enforce the citation. Otherwise, the agent must be there to witness the incident.

Susan Ahoc of the Neighborhood Department of the city was also present. She stated that the Saint Pete Paws program is modeled after the Mars Better Cities for Pets. She said that the goal of the program is not only to increase access for pets but also to increase owner education and responsibility in public. The city views pet ownership as a privilege and not a right. Thus, city code has rules regarding who can own pets and how they must treat them and train them.

For example, city code states that dogs should be leashed when in public and not in dog parks. Saint Petersburg Police have recently been issuing citations for dogs off leash in parks that are not dog parks. Some residents, heretofore unaware of the leash requirements, have been complaining about the increased enforcement. However, recent attacks by dogs on children and other pets have Kornell and other council members concerned that irresponsible pet owners are becoming more prevalent inside the city limits.

Brightwell explained the limitations of his agency, stating that, with only 15 staff members countywide, it is not possible for them to respond immediately to all calls about irresponsible pet owner behavior or aggressive pet behavior quickly. Most of the time, they simply try to follow up complaints by getting a name and phone number and calling the owner of the problem pet to try to educate them about city codes, the reasons behind them, and possible consequences of noncompliance.

Kornell wanted to find out what changes need to be made in state law to prevent dog attacks. He suggested that a law be crafted forbidding children to walk dogs larger than themselves. Brightwell responded that such a law would have little impact because the problem doesn’t begin and end with children. He stated that many times people simply haven’t taken the time to teach their dogs manners because they just don’t care enough about them (or their neighbors). Ultimately, he stated, the owners are going to have to train their pets, not just assume their dog is a good boy.

There are consequences under current law if attacks do occur. A severe attack on a human being means that the dog is considered dangerous and can be executed. One severe attack on another animal means that the owner is warned. A second severe attack on another pet means that the dog is considered dangerous and can be executed.

If this sounds unjust, that’s because it is. Exodus 21 says, “If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, then the ox shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted. But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.” It further says, “If one man’s ox hurts another’s so that it dies, then they shall sell the live ox and divide the money from it; and the dead ox they shall also divide. Or, if it was known that the ox tended to thrust in time past, and its owner has not kept it confined, he shall surely pay ox for ox, and the dead animal shall be his own.” It wouldn’t be difficult to apply the same principles to a dog, or any other pet.

However, in our current government, applying the Bible is off the table until we try everything else first.

The next committee was the Health Energy Resiliency and Sustainability Committee. Rice was proud to host the presentation of the Integrated Sustainability Action Plan (ISAP) by Sustainability Director Sharon Wright. The plan sets forth goals the city will attempt to reach in four to six years regarding environmental, economic, and social goals. It’s the ideal document for a central planner. It’s also guaranteed to fail, and the authors know it.

Unfortunately for us, the one thing government programs don’t do when they fail is go away. They just get more money thrown at them, while our taxes go up to fund both the failures and the salaries and pensions of the bureaucrats that won’t let them die. This will be no different.

The plan is for the city council to formally adopt this plan on April 18th and begin to prioritize the budget in accordance with it. That plan almost got derailed because the ISAP itself didn’t have the executive summary that is supposed to accompany every such detailed document, to give folks the layman’s terms. Montanari expressed reluctance to vote to move it ahead without getting a chance to read the executive summary first, and Gabbard’s motion to send it up to the full council was contingent on that document being prepared in time to be read beforehand by other council members before they are asked to vote for it. Wright said that she would try to cobble together a short draft to stand in as the executive summary so that she could have it ready by the close of business on Friday, and Dr. Kanika Tomalin promised that an updated and fuller version would be eventually included in the official publication. The motion passed unanimously.

Agenda review came after lunch, and I was late getting back, so I don’t know what happened for the first ten minutes. I do know that the roundabout planned for the new pier project is now off the table due to cost, and thus the St Pete Pride Parade will not be rerouted around it as had been planned. The parade will instead be held on its usual route on Central Avenue.

The final committee meeting of the day was for the Youth and Family Services Committee. They received two presentations from the Caruthers Institute. The first was regarding the supposed epidemic of youths stealing cars for joy-riding.

It is true that the city of Saint Petersburg is home to three of the top 100 ZIP codes in the state for teen auto theft, 33712, 33711, and 33705, all of which represent South City. However, “epidemic” is a term used for disease, though I suppose “rash” is, too. It’s definitely a problem, but it’s one that I don’t think the government is handling correctly. Dewey Caruthers, who runs the Caruthers Institute, doesn’t think they are doing a good job, either, and he proposed a series of options that the city is already inclined to take up. He just wants more money ($10,000) to finish his study on them. The members of the committee didn’t seem inclined to recommend that the city pay him the money, but they still voted to send it up for full council. This is because the council member who had referred it to the committee (Charlie Gerdes, District 1) was unable to be present, and sending it to full council was the only way to get his input in the Sunshine.

The second item for the committee was the African American Quality of Life Study and was referred by Brandi Gabbard. The presenters, Jabaar Edmonds, and Janet Wright requested $100,000 to study why, after the city poured $200M into programs on the south side, the vast majority of the residents there are worse off than before. I could have answered their question without the money, but then they would have had no reason to ask for tax dollars.

The fact is that the programs aren’t going to help the residents, because, if they do, they lose their reason for existence and the justification for requesting more tax funding. It’s really that simple. It doesn’t matter how nice the people are who advocate for the programs. It doesn’t matter how connected they are to the community. It doesn’t matter what metrics the city demands when issuing the grants. As long as the community doesn’t improve, the program can continue to state that its continued existence is necessary and so is city “investment.”

However, real investment comes at personal cost. If I want my garden to grow, I need to spend time tilling the soil, watering the plants, installing stakes, and pulling weeds. If I want my community to improve, I need to spend time personally communicating with my neighbors, pointing them to Jesus, sharing from my own pockets, and pushing back against oppressors. Government funded programs don’t do this. They begin with oppression, impoverishing the poor with rising property taxes that take away homes that were already paid off. Until the council ends this practice, almost nothing else they do for the south side will improve it.

There is one other thing they can do: end asset forfeiture. I can’t think of a worse way to demand that people build their communities than to authorize government agents to steal their property under the pretense that it was used for drugs or by drug users or dealers. As we noted last week, the arrest requirement in the Florida statute does not require that the OWNER of the property be guilty of the crime in question, only that the police department prove that criminals used the property to commit a crime. That’s not fair to the owner of the property.

Furthermore, the city can end the bicycle code enforcements. Every year, hundreds of (usually) black preteen and teen residents who live on the southside get arrested for not having proper cycling gear (usually a light on the bicycle at night). Why do they get arrested? Because they don’t carry a Florida ID and thus cannot be issued a $166 citation. I only know the price of the citation because I knew a man who was 21 or 22 at the time that he received one (he was white). I learned about the problem from a public defender I had in my cab.

These children are being taken to Juvenile Detention and then released with an order to appear in court. Their parents have to stop what they are doing on the south side or wherever they work, drive all the way to Clearwater, pick up the child after waiting and maybe paying a fee or the citation, then get them back home, and then remember if there is a follow up court date to take them back to Clearwater. Is it any wonder they are stealing cars? If they are going to be sent to Clearwater anyway, they might as well enjoy the reason, right?

Changing the system is not going to happen overnight, but we need to approach the issues with honesty. I just don’t think the council is prepared for that because then they would have to recognize the wrongs done by the police department they keep blithely funding.

In the end, the committee voted to continue the discussion. They intend to fund the study, just not at the $100,000 level, because, if they do that, then they have to put the study out for bid, thus removing any guarantee that the Caruthers Institute would receive the contract.

The full council meeting next week will start at 3 PM. I believe there will be committees meeting before that, but I’m not seeing them on the calendar. Thanks for listening. This has been Saint Petersburg Florida Area News, a production of the Reconstructionist Radio Network.