Committees and Crises

Joshua Black

Podcast: St. Petersburg, FL – Local Area News

Joshua covers the committee meetings that took place on January 10.


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Hello, Everyone, and welcome to the 2nd edition of the Saint Petersburg, Florida, Area News Podcast in 2019. I’m your host, Joshua Black, and today we’ll go over the committee meetings held by city council members on January 10, 2019.

The first committee of the day was the Budget, Finance, and Taxation Committee, referred to in council meetings as BF&T. Ed Montanari was selected to be the new chair of this committee.

The committee received a report from city staff about all the federal grants they had applied for, which ones had been approved, which ones had been rejected, and which ones were in process. Listening to the staff report about how many different parts of the city government depend on federal funding makes me realize why the federal budget is so overdrawn.

When we think of federal budget deficits, we always think of big ticket items, such as welfare or entitlement programs and the military. I have heard literally no one bring up the federal grants that cities depend on in order to maintain the bloated bureaucracies they run at the local level. Yet this meeting mentioned tens of millions of dollars they applied for, and millions more that they already receive regularly.

Of course, it is no surprise to anyone armed with this information that the council is quite concerned about the partial federal government shutdown. HUD is asking landlords to extend grace to renters, with no word on whether the landlords will be able to cover their mortgages. The city has a Housing Authority, but that entity depends on HUD and state funds–and the state legislature is not yet in full session (they are having committee meetings, but no appropriations will be passed before March). “Education” programs that tout government assistance programs have halted, because they were funded by the feds. And the list goes on.

Yet not one person said, “Shouldn’t we rethink our dependency on the federal government?” This isn’t the first time the federal government has shut down the 15% of it that spends money on the public. It likely won’t be the last, especially considering that this one started because of disagreement between the president and members of his own party in Congress. Cities and other entities that choose to continue to depend on the federal government for program funding are bound to be hurt by the next severe bump in the road, but they keep acting as if this is the only way to get things done.

Speaking of federal funding, remember that $2.5M donation that Bloomberg gave to the City last week? Bloomberg is basically going to pay one of his employees to give the city guidance as it seeks to fulfill his vision for an environmentally responsible city. Plus, if they run into problems funding the implementation of his expensive ideas, there is a panel of “experts” who will help them secure more federal grants. So what happens during the next shut down?

The yearning for tax dollars doesn’t end there, though. A lady who loves business cooperatives was there to speak about their advantages and to ask for $250,000 in grants from the taxpayers of St Petersburg. The idea is to replace a traditional grocery store with a co-op, seeing that chain grocers have repeatedly failed on the Southside of St Petersburg. She said that banks are usually willing to loan money to a new business entity as long as someone who owns 20% or more of it will co-sign the loan–and that cooperatives don’t have that person, because the ownership is divided among the many workers. While they make the effort to build their membership base, they need funds to build a website, secure the location they want, and get started on the infrastructure of the business itself.

All of which sounds noble until she looks for tax dollars. Taxation is a key driver of the poverty in the area she’s trying to reach. The homestead exemption means that renters pay higher property taxes per unit than owners, because the landlords collect that tax money from somewhere. If the people in the area had more of their own money in their own pockets, maybe more businesses in the area would thrive.

What wasn’t noted by the presenter or the council members is that people are still eating in that area. In fact, grocery delivery services are delivering fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats to the area from established grocery store chains. People in Saint Petersburg no longer have to go to the store to get fresh food. The food can come to them. No need for tax dollars to be spent.

And that’s if they don’t drive to the stores themselves.

Either the proponents don’t know, or they refuse to acknowledge, that retail theft was a large reason for several chains choosing to cease operations in that particular shopping plaza. Also, there is quite a large assortment of locally owned convenience food markets that people prefer to patronize over grocery chains. Those stores are thriving in the supposed food desert. This co-op isn’t going to get the traction they are looking for, either, but they might get the funding, because council members like Darden Rice don’t like the idea of people choosing to buy from Dollar Tree or a convenience store for their food.

Next committee was the Public Services & Infrastructure Committee (aka PS&I). Steve Kornell will continue to act as chair for the new year.

The only presentation was regarding the findings of a consultant who analyzed the city’s efforts to do a better job with current infrastructure and add on the biosolids fuel project safely and marketably. The city spent $65M preparing for the switch from selling the waste from sewage water to farmers to creating fuel that TECO can use to heat homes and power vehicles. The cost of the project isn’t staying inside the $65M, now approaching $70M, and TECO hasn’t yet said whether they will accept the gas that is produced. That’s because they haven’t tested it for quality, which they can’t do until the project is complete.

Councilmember Montanari said that the project was sold as a savings for ratepayers. He is concerned that the possibility that the end product won’t meet TECO standards isn’t being taken seriously enough by staff. He might be right. The staff member making the presentation was saying that a change in the way the city handles solid waste was inevitable, and the effort to turn it into something usable is noble, even if it ultimately fails.

But Councilmember Kornell pointed out that, should the city’s biosolids product not meet TECO’s standards, the city could be compelled to burn off methane gas, something that goes directly against the heart of sustainability and environmental efforts. He also insisted that staff take the possibility of failure more seriously and look into the necessary efforts to make this expensive project pay off. The staff member appeared to not even have heard of the possibility that the city would be burning methane gas.

The next PS&I meeting will discuss the noise ordinance and possible changes. That’s for January 24th.

The Housing, Land Use, and Transportation Committee met next. Brandi Gabbard was elected new chair.

The first topic, as expected, was regarding possibilities for funding subsidies for housing in St Pete. The staff member went over a great number of legal options for obtaining the funding sought, but no one considered the only possibility that will actually work: abandon the subsidies and cut property taxes.

I understand that some occupants live rent free, but that’s not a lot of people, and charities can cover them. Furthermore, the homeowners who can’t afford the property taxes are being forced to sell homes they paid off long ago. Paying rent is something they haven’t had to do for years. Plus, as noted earlier, landlords collect their (higher) property taxes from tenants. The higher the taxes on businesses that provide housing, the higher the threshold price for renting living spaces.

Robert Gerdes (yes, he’s related to the new chair of the city council) said that the city is spending $50k “per door” on housing subsidies. That’s a lot of money.

The next item for discussion was the Bus Rapid Transit project. PSTA, HART, and TBARTA have a grand scheme for dedicated bus lanes to try to get some buses moving faster than they normally do (which is snail’s pace). The idea is that, if they can do this, more people will choose the buses for commuting. I don’t think it will work, because I don’t think the people who want others to give up their cars understand the flexibility that having a personal vehicle affords.

That ignorance hasn’t stopped them from planning to strip not only a travel lane from 1st Ave N and 1st Ave S but also to reduce parking on the left side to give that lane to the express bus when it arrives at the pick up station. They did decide to make the left lane only semi-dedicated, opening it for turning vehicles.

The city staff has bemoaned the lack of turnout at the feedback meetings they have done with the public, but that’s because they refuse to face the reality that their inflexible mentality is making it clear to people whose lives they are altering that they don’t care what the feedback is. The city residents were never asked to vote for this. This is an entirely bureaucratic initiative, and it isn’t doing the residents any good. Councilmember Rice mentioned that the federal government has a $20M grant that they expect to receive for making these efforts. I guess we can see why the residents don’t have a real voice in this matter.

The next Housing, Land Use, and Transportation Committee meeting is in February, and the topic there will be parking regulations.

The last meeting was an agenda review meeting, which allows council members to look over the consent agenda and pull items from it for discussion, as well as to make other adjustments to other items. There was a bit of discussion about the length of quasi-judicial meet.ings (usually for zoning issues). Some of those get lengthy, and, with some council committee meetings starting as early as 8 AM, council members don’t want to be at city hall until 11 PM.

While I feel some sympathy for them, I am reminded that they choose to forbid development without zoning approval. It would be a simple matter to scrap the central planning aspect of the city council, and they would not have to deal with so many late evening meetings. However they don’t want to surrender their power over the lives of other people, so they get to deal with the consequences. Lots of people love to play God until they find out that He doesn’t sleep.

This has been Saint Petersburg Florida Area News, a production of the Reconstructionist Radio Network. Thanks for listening