Welcome to the 12th edition of the Saint Petersburg Florida Area News podcast for the year 2019. I’m your host, Joshua Black, and today’s episode will cover the full day meeting of the Saint Petersburg City Council for April 4.
Councilman Ed Montanari (district 3) was not in attendance, due to illness. Please pray for his recovery.
Councilmember Lisa Wheeler-Bowman (district 7) was back in attendance after dealing with a death in her family early last month. It was revealed later that she had left the council committee meetings on March 28th to attend the board meeting of the Saint Petersburg Housing Authority. She gave a report at the end of the council meeting. It wasn’t good.
But, before we go there, the city council began with its usual hoopla, including the approval of the agenda and of the consent agenda. I rose to object to the consent agenda, because of the millions of dollars reflected in the contracts without discussion or debate. Because I used the word “irresponsible,” Charlie Gerdes (council chair, representative from District 1) chose to respond to my complaint by stating that most of the consent agenda items that day represented renewals of contracts, not brand new projects. He also said that they were already anticipated in the budget since they are usually multi-year projects. Steve Kornell (district 5) pointed to the $800,000 item for water meters and said that there really isn’t room to debate on items like that.
In my mind, there is, but we’d have to change the way we do government.
During the open forum, many members of the community spoke against the government’s lack of openness and communication with regard to the execution of both the Complete Streets project and the Bus Rapid Transit program. Their words largely fell on deaf ears, but they could indicate a lawsuit in the works.
For my time in the open forum, I stated that seeing that none of them were elected unanimously, they should refrain from pushing their own ideas on other people, especially since the Bible says that governments are established by God to get justice for victims, not control the way we live our lives. Of course, that went unheeded, too.
The city moved on to public hearings for new ordinances. The proposal to name the Sanitation Department Administration Building after the late Benjamin F Shirley, Sr., passed unanimously. So did the granting of a “public utility easement” to Duke Energy within Booker Creek Park. I didn’t rise to object to the existence of a government protected monopoly at this point, but I wanted to.
Next, the new tenants of the Manhattan Casino gave their yearly update to their landlord. The review from the report was mixed, with administration giving praise, but with council members concerned that the promises made by the tenants in order to get the lease weren’t being realized. Those promises were made without regard for the time and money it would take to invest in them and without regard to the level of productivity required by the participants to make them sustainable. So, typical political promises. The result is that the Callaloo Group hasn’t hired the number of folks from the community that they had hoped or realized the volume of business that they had expected. It’s almost as if mixing political goals with business goals isn’t a good idea for a start-up.
This isn’t the first failure realized by the city council in terms of writing business contracts with politically-oriented social impacts as goals. Amy Foster mentioned at least three others in her remarks. Keep this in mind when we discuss the grant program in two weeks for the Storefront Conservation Corridor Overlay.
After a short break, council took up the item Montanari had pulled from the Consent Agenda regarding asset forfeiture. A city police officer brought up an attorney with the police department to explain how they handle forfeitures legally. This forfeiture was from the US Treasury Department. Others could come from the Department of Justice or its agencies; still, others could be initiated by the department itself. The one I found too late a few months ago was from the DOJ.
I rose to object to this theft practice by pointing out that the owner isn’t always charged with a crime when the seizure of his property is initiated and that it isn’t required that he be convicted before the property can be forfeited to the department. The attorney for the police department answered skillfully and deceitfully by addressing only the statutes that cover police department initiated seizures, not US Treasury or DOJ seizures.
Police department seizures are indeed covered under the recently changed Florida statute that requires an arrest before or with the seizure and requires the department to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the property in question (not the owner, but the property itself) has been involved in criminal conduct. Thus the department attorney insisted that due process does exist for these cases. But who can afford both an attorney to address the criminal complaint and to address the civil complaint (which forfeiture proceedings fall under)? And what if the owner of the property isn’t the criminal?
In addition, neither Treasury seizures nor DOJ seizures are conducted under these rules. This was a Treasury seizure, and no information was given about how many cases this money represented or whether the owners of the property were ever charged with a crime. Nor was there any effort by the police department to reveal what harm they had suffered by investigating the crime to be rightly deemed as victims worthy of restitution of some sort from these funds.
I had already stepped back and sat down, so I didn’t reply with that, but maybe I would have been allowed to. I didn’t know, so I didn’t try. Thus, the council members in attendance voted unanimously to allow the transfer.
Then council adjourned temporarily in order to convene as the Community Redevelopment Agency. The discussion was, once again, the new project by the Bezu group known as the Blue Lotus. This project has been stopped two or three times already, and the developer keeps making changes that they think will address the objections of the residents nearby and thus win approval. This time, they got the approval after about 40 people mostly used their three minutes to speak against it. The fiercest opposition comes from the residents of the next door Flori De Leon complex. They don’t want to be in the shadow of a skyscraper and have argued this project down to 19 stories from 25. The developer has also incorporated design themes from the Flori on the lower levels, in this latest plan. The vote was 5-2, with Kornell and Rice opposed. Then council adjourned as CRA and reconvened as council.
There was a lot to learn in the sewer report given by Claude Tankersley. First, the South West water treatment facility originally had a budget of $31M. The total cost to date is $60M, and Claude insists that this is the last request for funding. There were three contracts for that project, totaling more than $5.3M. The funding for these contracts comes from a $100M contingency fund that was set aside in anticipation of such overruns.
The result is that the capacity of the treatment facility has been improved to 70M gallons/ day at peak. The administration expects this to be enough to handle future storms so as not to be forced to dump raw sewage into the Bay if we get hit by another hurricane. I don’t know when we will find out if they are right.
The Jacobs group got another extension on their already $4M contract. The city agreed to pay them another $271,100 to study Rain-Derived Inflow and Infiltration–leaks into the water distribution pipes that the city believes is exacerbating water resource department capacity deficiencies. Claude later stated that downtown city residents normally use 28M gallons per day, while the treatment capacity for the downtown treatment plant is 60M. The distribution capacity for that development zone is 80M. The plan for Jacobs is to help the city identify the leaks so the city can line the affected pipes with a new tube that doesn’t leak.
Claude also asked for and received approval for the annual rate study, so the city can decide whether they are charging people enough on their water bills. Combine this with the new plan for the city to charge residents for the suspected impact of impervious land on a property (looking for council approval in September or October), and you can expect a rude awakening on your water bill next year. There were two different contracts for the Stantec group to cover both these rate studies, the annual for $159,640 and the new one for $216,975.
Claude also noted that there were 6 unauthorized discharges by pipes holding reclaimed water. He stated that those were caused by connection saddles failing due to temperature changes. He also reported 3 wastewater discharges. He stated that two were caused by grease and one by a rag. For previous discharges, he reported that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is fining the city $60,000. Some of the discharges were not counted against them because they were contained quickly and not allowed to contaminate the ground or nearby bodies of water.
The council also received a request for a rehearing in the matter of the Driftwood Historic Neighborhood Designation. You may recall that the opponents alleged that some ballots had not been properly date stamped and thus should not have been counted. Derek Killburn stated during the hearing that the city had indeed received the ballots in the time required and that the lack of a physical date stamp didn’t void that. He pointed to the fact that the ballots in question were included in a tally sent out by email before the deadline, as proven by the computer timestamps on the log sheet and on the email.
The city’s attorney stated that doing the rehearing would allow the evidence defending Killburn’s statement to be recorded as evidence that the city was acting in good faith and would boost the city’s case in court. Rice was frustrated, but the council unanimously agreed to schedule the rehearing for May 16th. Gabbard announced that she would be absent, but no one moved to change the date to accommodate her. I’m not sure if she just didn’t want the hearing or not, but she could have made that motion herself.
Wheeler Bowman gave her report on the Saint Petersburg Housing Authority at this point. The board actually had a member make a vote in committee before that member had been approved to serve on that committee. Further, the administration had culled its 14,000 name wait list for Section 8 housing to 2200 by sending both emails and USPS mail to the applicants and removing them if they received no response. Council members expressed concerns that the Authority was being neglectful, stating that they could not see how nearly 12,000 people who requested housing vouchers in 2015 would no longer need them. I can. Maybe 12,000 people saw that they couldn’t rely on the government and found a better way.
Also, the Authority seems poised to move forward with the funding for the Jordan Park renovation project. Kornell seemed astonished that they were able to do so without the moneys denied by Council due to lack of transparency (not a hypocritical moment for him, unlike some others), and Wheeler Bowman stated that they expected to pay a higher interest rate for the money but had been able to secure funding without the city allowing them to use an issue of municipal bonds. Kornell was alarmed by this, but the legal team reminded him that the stonewall of action (there was no motion) to deny the funding request was made with the understanding that, if the board had met with the council at a committee of the whole the following week, the council would reconsider the request. The meeting didn’t take place that following week, and the board didn’t ask for funding again formally, either, not even after the meeting that did take place in January.
Then we had the first reading of three new ordinances. An ordinance increasing the fines for violating city campaign finance regulations and another allowing a portion of an alley to be vacated were given second readings of April 18th. Also, the Kenwood Neighborhood Historic District application was given a public hearing for that date. It is expected to have much less opposition than the one for Driftwood.
The council then heard from an attorney resolving a complaint from Dorchester Holdings. The city had removed some contaminated soil from one spot to another, with the consent of the property owner in the second place, and, because of the changes in ownership and the further degrading of the contaminated soil, the city needs to move the soil again to a landfill. The cost is $1,120,500 to move it to a state-approved site in Manatee County. The council approved the proposal unanimously.
For new business, Kornell proposes to get a charter amendment that would allow the city to receive grants for park conservation purposes. He stated that some moneys were being left on the table. It was unanimously referred to PS&I.
Gerdes requested discussion on possible amendments to the City’s Grease Management Program. He stated that this is in response to the 3 or more cases in which trapped grease has caused wastewater system failure. Current code allows grease traps to remain 20% loaded, but Pinellas County has required them to be completely emptied in the unincorporated areas it serves, and Gerdes would like the city to follow suit. Council unanimously assigned it to PS&I as well.
Rice wants to increase the fines for removing grand trees without a permit. I objected, noting the silence with which the city officials allowed the state to destroy hundreds of trees for the Gandy overpass project just a few years ago. Why ignore that big project and then stomp on the little guy? They ignored me and referred the proposal to HLUT. They also referred another infringement proposal by Rice to include gender identity and gender expression as a protected class.
Rice also proposed adding a millage rate increase to the discussion for using a referendum to raise money to fund housing subsidies. Gabbard was irritated because the HLUT committee already plans to take up the referendum issue. She also steadfastly opposes a millage rate increase, being a realtor. I also spoke against the tax increase. I reminded the council that increasing the cost floor eliminates prices below that cost floor. They didn’t listen and referred it the committee with only Gabbard voting no.
Gabbard then requested to put the Forward Pinellas study “Gateway Master Plan” on the HLUT calendar. The study will be complete in June. I have objections to the study itself, mostly because I strongly object to central planning but also because PSTA has a history of wasteful spending. I couldn’t recall my exact objections though, so I withdrew.
Then council gave the committee reports, including for the committee meetings I could not attend on March 14th and 15. The Budget Finance and Taxation Committee (BF&T) heard an insurance report. The costs of insurance increased for each category of Water Resources, General, and Highly Protected Risk (such as the Police Department Headquarters and the Sundial) properties. The Public Services and Infrastructure Committee (PS&I) moved changes to the sign code to the April 18th council meeting for first reading. The Health Energy Resiliency and Sustainability Committee (HERS) took no action but heard from activists. The Cosponsored Events Committee accepted the applications for a couple more events, including some watch parties for the Tampa Bay Lightning during the impending NHL playoffs. The Legislative Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations Committee met with a bunch government officials, some of whom promised to steer more tax dollars the city’s way.
For the more recent meetings, as expected, the HLUT report included the approval of the nominations of Stephanie Owens and Jerrilyn Evans to the Saint Petersburg Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. The report from the Committee of the Whole on March 28 culminated with the approval of the $650,000 of Weeki Wachee funds for the Maximo Park project, with Dr. Tomalin stating that all efforts to find funding elsewhere had come up empty.
Next week’s council meeting will be a mini meeting, with mostly awards and presentations but no spending proposals. However, there are committee meetings planned for beforehand. Keep an eye on our facebook page for live videos in the meantime. You can find it here: facebook.com/stpeteflnews You can also follow me on Twitter: @JoshBlackStPete
Thanks for listening. This has been Saint Petersburg Florida Area News, a production of the Reconstructionist Radio Network.