Greed and Graft

Joshua Black

Podcast: St. Petersburg, FL – Local Area News

Summaries of the Saint Petersburg City Council committee meetings for January 31, 2019


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Welcome to the 5th edition of the Saint Petersburg Florida Area News podcast for the year 2019. I’m your host, Joshua Black.

Today, we will cover the committee meetings that took place on January 31, 2019. The first was an agenda review for the full-day city council meeting planned for February 7. Ed Montanari pulled a couple of items from the consent agenda, and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman added a new business item. These meetings are important because they are intended to cut down the time required to conduct the city council meetings, and many explanations from staff to clarify items are made here that aren’t made during the ordinary meetings.

For example, agenda item F2 would seem to be redundant for a similar item from the December 6, 2018, meeting, but, as Brejesh from Engineering and Heather from the legal team explained, the item is actually a correction of that action, because the contract signed differed from what was presented to Council. No explanation for how that happened, but I’m sure a one on one meeting from staff will happen this coming week with Ed Montanari, the council member who asked about it.

The other significant occurrence was the fact that Council Chair Charlie Gerdes implored the rest of the council to be mindful of the tone they would strike in the impending Committee of the Whole with the board of the Saint Petersburg Housing Authority. If you recall, the former chair of the council, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, had made quite an effort to get this meeting to take place after the board had requested $3M from the city council for the Jordan Park project. In her efforts, she had uncovered some practices of the board that seemed to be quite unlawful on their face and clearly unethical, too. The result was that the board was resistant to the idea of meeting, because they didn’t want to face any questions, but they still requested the $3M.

As a result, City Council requested their legal team to draw up a request that the mayor consider removing two of the board members, a move that would have to have been approved by council. This suddenly changed the tone of the meeting talks. They still requested to preview the list of topics that council members intended to discuss with the board for the meeting set for January 31. However, they didn’t reciprocate. In fact, new council chair Gerdes informed the Committee of the Whole during Agenda Review that he had almost insisted on postponing the meeting, because the board did not submit the back up materials for the items they wished to discuss until Tuesday. The only reason that he didn’t, he said, is that the board had already bought a plane ticket for the expert they needed to testify during the scheduled CoW. She was flying in from Arizona, and Charlie didn’t want to waste her flight.

I got the sense from several of the members that they wouldn’t have minded wasting her flight. They preferred to have more time to read the materials so that they could ask intelligent questions. Ed Montanari pointed out that he had been at City Hall since early in the morning to read it and still felt that he hadn’t been given sufficient time. Furthermore, several members pointed out that this delayed data dump was part of a consistent pattern for the board.

In the end, the members consented to the chair’s guidance and the fact that he removed the presentation from the developer for the Jordan Park project from the agenda for the CoW meeting later that day. In the meantime, they prepared for lunch and for the other committee preceding the CoW.

That other committee was the Legislative Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations Committee (also known as the LAIR Committee). Ed Montanari was selected to continue as chair, and Amy Foster was selected as Vice Chair. Staff presented a synopsis of the bills and topics that they were tracking at the state level as the deadline approaches on February 5th for members of the Florida Legislature to file bills. Ed Montanari noted that his approach to the Florida Legislature was essentially the same as the approach of the late Congressman Bill Young–namely, in light of the fact that the residents of his district pay taxes, to make every effort to get as many of those dollars spent back in the district.

But doesn’t it make more sense not to let the money get taxed out of the area in the first place? When you consider the facts that the Legislature depends on the federal government for some 40-45% of its income and that the city also places demands on the feds, it seems like this approach makes city officials more dependent on DC for finances and thus less responsive to the members of the community. We can already see the effects of that with the Bus Rapid Transit and Complete Streets projects.

The city has actually won an award for a pretty terrible iteration of Complete Streets on Martin Luther King, Jr, Street North, between 32nd Ave North and 4th Ave North, while neglecting to even install basic crosswalks on 18th Ave South across from a recreation center. It took a concerned citizen months after complaining bitterly on social media to even get before council to get administration to move it to the priority list. I’ll put a video together later of the progress on the Complete Streets mess on Martin Luther King.

By the way, as noted in our most recent episode, they also somehow found money to plant trees on 18th Ave South, but not to put in crosswalks. That tree planting project was also guided by federal funds. This planting was discussed in the last HERS Committee meeting, when Montanari asked for pictures of the trees that had been planted there, because the collage prepared by Sustainability Director Sharon Wright only showed one tree but lots of photos of a trash pick up.

Brandi Gabbard, eager for more tax dollars, asked why the city didn’t have a similar list of priorities for federal funds and bills. Some puzzled looks went around until Amy Foster mentioned that the city actually pays a lobbyist to look out for the interests of the city government at the federal level. I have submitted a public records request for the name and salary of that lobbyist. I’ll post on Facebook when I receive it.

The next meeting for the LAIR Committee had been planned for May 30th, but Gabbard objected, noting that the Legislative Session would have already been over and that they would not have had a chance to get an update for the items they want to focus on. Thus the next meeting is now scheduled for March 14, the week before most of the council members are planning to visit the Legislature. The Chamber of Commerce is organizing a St Pete Day in Tallahassee for March 21, and several council members intend to go with them. Council members intend to use that time to lobby Legislature members for the items on the city’s priority list.

The next meeting was the Committee of the Whole, and, before they got to the Board of the Saint Petersburg Housing Authority, they needed to discuss the Storefront Conservation Corridor Overlay. Basically, the city is trying to keep current storefronts along Beach Drive and Central Avenue from consolidating too much. The proposed regulations would grandfather in any current cases, but the emphasis, if approved, will be on demanding a minimum percentage of small store fronts while limiting the number of medium and large storefronts.

Now, staff insisted that storefront size is not a direct correlation with venue size. A smaller storefront could lead to a larger venue if the venue also included space upstairs along side a smaller venue. It could also go behind the smaller venue. The emphasis is on street level “activated” storefront sizes, not actual venue sizes. Plus, there are opportunities for variance.

Council members expressed concerns that local businesses grown in Saint Petersburg would be forced, in the case of great success, to move away from their homes by these regulations, which could impact their futures adversely, seeing that location is an important consideration in any business model. Councilmember Gabbard also expressed concerns that the zoning part was too restrictive and would hinder adequate new development.

What I noticed is the continued emphasis on decreasing available parking. Smaller venues (less than 3000 sq ft) would not be required to make room for their customers to park, but medium and larger venues would. With the mandate for smaller storefronts (which aren’t necessarily smaller venues, as explained earlier) combined with the Bus Rapid Transit taking parking spaces away from 1st Ave South, Central Avenue will become an even greater nightmare for parking. No word of concern about the combined impacts of these government actions was expressed by the council members.

Staff wanted to add this proposal to the February 7th Council Meeting for first reading, but council members balked, saying that they didn’t have their questions adequately answered and were considering splitting the zoning proposal from other regulations. Council set the date for first reading as February 21st and second reading as March 14.

Then came the big show. Residents and bureaucrats came out in force. Room 100, where council committee meetings are held, has a capacity limit of 94, so the Community Resource Room was used for overflow. And it was necessary.

The first presentation was intended to justify the estimated costs of renovating 31 units in the 9 oldest buildings of the Jordan Park project. The representative from the contracted architectural firm showed a series of slides that detailed the work that will be necessary to bring those 9 buildings up to code. The estimate was said to be $4.2M. This was intended to lead into the presentation by the consultant that had flown in from Arizona, but the members of city council had serious questions about the way the estimates had been compiled, especially seeing the items at the end of the tally sheet, which included a 6% profit estimate for the developer and other costs that came to very near $1M.

Commissioner Anthony (Tony) Love tried desperately to get council members off the subject, but they dogged the consultant from the architectural firm insistently, dissatisfied with the answers they were receiving. I can’t blame them. I have a copy of her presentation, and I will include it in a separate link at the end of this transcript.

The next consultant didn’t fare much better. Her numbers were supposed to be based on the other consultant’s numbers, but even accepting them didn’t justify the math she presented. I also have a copy of her presentation. I’ll link to that at the end, too.

Basically, the plan for redevelopment includes turning part of the “public housing project” into Section 8 housing, about 76 units of the 266. That isn’t stated in any of the slides, which is why they didn’t make any sense. In order for those to be Section 8, they need to be privately owned, hence the RISE Development Corporation, ostensibly a private nonprofit entity but created by a tax funded government entity.

In addition to the serious and legitimate questions about the consultants’ presentations, the council members also brought up the items they had previously listed as topics for discussion: the compensation terms of the RISE Development Corporation, the possibility of a new satellite office for the board, the deplorable lack of communication between the board and the city council, and why a (volunteer) board member was told that she would have to pay for the information she requested about the historical practices of the board.

Love explained that the member had asked for 5 or 6 years of data and that this required staff to stop working on other essential projects, which triggers the state statute that allows them to charge for the work necessary to be done to make the public records available. Furthermore, with overtures from Council Chair Gerdes, he committed to annual meetings to try to improve communication with City Council.

Foster wasn’t satisfied with his statements on communication. She noted that, whenever they have asked the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to look into questionable practices by the Housing Authority, the council was reminded that they are the government entity that has legal oversight authority over the Board of the Saint Pete Housing Authority (this despite the state law that prohibits them from disbanding it). She wants better reports and accountability. Love didn’t seem too eager to comply.

Love also dodged the questions about the RISE Development Corporation’s compensation scheme. He stated that the legal team of the Housing Authority had determined that any compensation terms for such an entity were a violation of state laws and thus the board had dropped the idea entirely. Montanari pressed him for answers about the plans, anyway, but he refused to answer.

Gabbard asked about posting a satellite office in the new Jordan Park development upon its completion, but Love insisted that the plan to sell tax credits to investors would be jeopardized by such a plan. Selling tax credits to investors? Yes. The sale of the tax credits is expected to be the largest source of income for the redevelopment of the 206 dilapidated units currently filled with code violations. The $3M requested from the city only covers part of the cost of building 60 new units that would form the basis for increasing the income of the development in order to qualify for the private loans they are seeking by transforming those 60 units plus 16 of the others into Section 8 units. Now, posting a government building on private property isn’t that unusual, but having a housing property also leasing a government office building would make it more mixed use than residential and thus lower the tax credits available for sale.

Deputy Mayor Dr. Tamika Tomalin stated that administration would like to see the actual headquarters of the Saint Petersburg Housing Authority relocated from North Saint Petersburg (where none of the people who rent facilities owned by it live) to South Saint Petersburg (where all of them do live). Council members Driscoll and Gabbard agreed, demanding to know why Love and the rest of the board was so adamant about preventing accessibility to their offices for their customers. Again, Love dodged the question.

What wasn’t discussed is the fact that only wealthy people are able to make the investment in the tax credits and are the only ones who would benefit from them. Furthermore, seeking the higher rents via Section 8 in order to service debts from private lenders means enriching banks with interest payments via larger tax funded subsidies. This means a greater burden on taxpayers and thus a greater hill for the poor to climb. That’s the way all these subsidy-focused programs seem to work.

I must pause here to note that the change in rent receipts for the housing project do not come in a change in rental prices for tenants. The tenants in both public housing and Section 8 housing are only required to pay one-third of their monthly income in rent, with government subsidies covering the rest. Section 8 vouchers pay the private landlords the difference between the rental requirement of the individual and the market level rent. Public Housing entities are paid less.

In the end, Gerdes and Kornell seemed more conciliatory than the rest of council, but that may not be enough to give the board the 3M in tax dollars they seek. Now it’s up to the residents to keep their taxes out of the hands of banks.

Next city council meeting is scheduled for February 7, 2019. Be sure to check the link below for the agenda with its adds and deletes. Thanks for listening. This has been Saint Petersburg Florida Area News, a production of the Reconstructionist Radio Network.

Links: Council Agenda for February 7 (warning: don’t download this PDF–it’s too large: just view it)

Council Agenda Additions and Deletions (because they never change the official document for the agenda)

Link to slides from the architectural consultant

Link to slides from the second consultant