Nosy Neighbors

Joshua Black

Podcast: St. Petersburg, FL – Local Area News

This report is but a snapshot of how government regulations allow busybodies to hinder beneficial economic activities.


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Welcome to the tenth edition of the Saint Petersburg Florida Area News podcast for the year 2019. I’m your host, Joshua Black, and this episode will cover the city council meeting held on March 7. I was not able to attend the meeting in person, but I was able to watch afterwards.

The meeting began with the deletion of agenda item E4. Councilmember Darden Rice requested that the item be pushed to next week, because no one was available to give the update they had requested regarding recent troubles at Bayfront Health, the healthcare provider for the city’s employees with the city’s self-insurance plan.

The consent agenda only spent about $450,000 this week. That’s shockingly low, considering that it was across three projects.

The next item was a settlement for damage to a piece of private property. City attorneys were able to secure a settlement with the owner for $60,000 after a sanitation vehicle damaged a detached garage beyond repair.

The sidewalk table prohibition ordinance was given its first public reading. The motion to set the public hearing for March 14th was approved unanimously.

The next was an ordinance regarding a fence on private property. The codes compliance staff felt that this permission to vacate the property and to allow the rebuilding of a “better” fence with landscaping was the best way forward. Council approved new public hearing date for March 14.

Council also approved the naming ordinance for the Sanitation Administration Building. That public hearing date is April 4.

The next matter was a church with property downtown trying to transform its parking lot into an office building with parking. However, the city wants to pay to make public parking available in that building. That’s 300 spaces at $28,700 per space. So the cost to the city would be around $8.6M, which the developer would receive in tax dollars. This helps the church sell the property. The city would receive 15% of the operating profit in exchange for the one time purchase, but the taxpayers wouldn’t get a rebate on the money spent. Council approved the term sheet unanimously.

Item E2, the request for $750,000 for art for the 23 stops in the Bus Rapid Transit got the expected fireworks. Montanari pointed out that the city already committed $4M. Staff said that this funding is in addition to that. Montanari asked about the FTA funds. Staff said that those funds are for the sidewalks. Montanari asked why the funding request was so urgent. Staff said that PSTA is moving forward with the designs for the stations and that waiting will force retrofitting rather than designed inclusion.

Montanari also asked if other cities will be funding art on their side. PSTA staff said that they are planning to include art only in Saint Petersburg, not in the adjacent cities that will be included in the route. Montanari then asked if any additional funds would be requested from the city for the Bus Rapid Transit project. Staff assured that this was the last request. We will see if that’s the truth.

Gerdes asked about the thematic plans for the art. Legal advised that the administration will be the decider on approving the art, but, with Gerdes looking for an opportunity for input, City Administrator Tom Greene stated that he would be okay with bringing the top three project proposals to council for their opinions. Thus Council approved the appropriations unanimously.

Next was the Sewer report. Claude Tankersley presented two spending items for approval, one for $954,392 and one for $178,207.55. Both were approved unanimously.

Tankersley also reported that there was an unapproved discharge of about 50 gal of sewage. He stated that the cause was grease that rose to the top after being put into the sewage system by private persons. The city water resources staff went to the houses nearby after discovery of the spillage to put notices on the doors to remind residents not to pour grease down the drain.

The next item was the item pulled from the Consent Agenda because it included a waiver of the apprenticeship wage for a city contract over $1M. The union objected to approval because they said that they could provide the apprentices necessary for compliance. Tom Greene said that the $4M represents an effort to resurface 110 miles every year. Staff said that any delay would push all of the resurfacing project back, but that they would pick up when or if they need to get a new contract. Foster moved to delay it anyway, and the whole council agreed. It will come back on the 14th.

Then council moved on to new business. Councilmember Gina Driscoll moved to refer an item to BF&T to discuss providing incentives to drive folks to increase the efficiency of new HVAC units in the city. Gerdes wants to open up the code to allow a new kind of metal material for fence construction. Kornell wants to have a Committee of the Whole look at providing Weeki Wachee funding for a Maximo project. All three items were passed on to their respective committees unanimously.

Then the committee reports began. Montanari reported on the BF&T meeting we covered last week. There was a resolution to amend the purpose statement for the city’s investment policy. That motion passed unanimously.

Gerdes gave the report for the Committee of the Whole that we covered last week regarding the Storefront Conservation Corridor Overlay. Constituents voiced objection to the ways that the city government is trying to implement an idea that they already agree with. They also requested that the council push the date back to April 18th instead of April 4th. Councilmember Brandi Gabbard agreed and made a motion to that effect, while separating the zoning portion from the grant program. Staff objected to the delay and to the continued bifurcation of the grant program versus the zoning program. Staff tried to pretend that they are surprised that there are still objections, even though the attorney for the property owners has been making these objections for weeks. Gabbard insisted that contacting the business owners is different from contacting the property owners and that property owners weren’t included until too late in the game.

Rice pointed out that these particular owners aren’t generally connected with the Saint Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and thus that staff would need to work more diligently to get word out to those folks. Council approved the delay until April 18th and set the report date for the grant program for March 14th, based on a motion from Foster, who cited as her reason the fact that the funding had been approved back in October.

After dinner, city council addressed the rental inspection program. An ordinance passed in the 1990s allowed the codes compliance team to give landlords a citation if they refused to allow an inspection for rental units. The legal team advised that the city of Daytona Beach had been sued for a similar ordinance on the books, and staff advised that they have already adopted a warrant based inspection program. Council passed the new ordinance language unanimously.

The next hearing was the Driftwood Local Historic Designation quasi-judicial hearing. I’m really sorry that I could not be there for this. There are 47 parcels affected by this designation, but the owners are not united in seeking this designation. Some have even filed a lawsuit prior to the intended hearings back in December to prevent the proposal from moving forward. The reason is that such a designation limits the kinds of actions that property owners can take in that given area, and thus limits the kind of people who might be interested when an owner decides to sell. One such owner’s attorney was present during another public hearing and said that his client is living in a nursing home and trying to cover his bills with the sale of his house of more than 30 years. The potential buyer has plans that wouldn’t be allowed under this designation and thus would withdraw if it passes.

The applicant’s presentation was mostly nostalgic, as should be expected in such a proposal. Sadly, in a clear show of bias, city staff was used to produce the video presented to council for the hearing. I expect this to work against the city in any future litigation.

The registered opponents pointed to possible ethics violations with regard to information withheld from the owners prior to the first vote, which was noted in an email sent by the applicant to city staff. They also pointed out that the ballots received were counted in discordance with the historic designation ordinance, saying that ballots not returned should have been counted as being in opposition and that some ballots received in favor didn’t have a postmark or date stamp by which to verify that they had been received in a timely manner. They further stated that including the landscaping as part of the designation was simply not allowed by code and was rather evidence of lack of maintenance. They also concluded that only 9 of the 43 parcels were legitimately historic and that the rest of the structures were “non-contributing.”

After extensive (and, by extensive, I mean more than 3 full hours of) testimony, the legal team addressed the matter of timely receipt of ballots and verification thereof. Michael Dema stated that metadata in support of the statements by staff regarding the process would be used to support the city’s position that they had indeed been received at the time stated in court. Council therefore approved the designation 6-2, with Montanari and Gabbard voting no. You can absolutely expect a second lawsuit to follow quickly.

After the vote, council received the Co-sponsored Events Committee report. Council approved the exemptions and waivers for the upcoming events related to alcohol sales and to the non-profit requirements discussed in our previous report.

Councilman Ed Montanari gave the Public Services and Infrastructure Committee report for 2/28/19, noting that Gerdes’ motion to make the requirements of the Responsible Wage proposal mandatory and to require compliance with local, state, and federal laws passed unanimously.

Councilmember Brandi Gabbard, eager to depart at close to 10:30 PM, simply moved to receive and file the detailed Housing, Land Use, and Transportation Committee Report, which had already been submitted for the perusal of the rest of the council.

I couldn’t help but note that the day started at 8:30 and didn’t end until 14 hours later. Breaks in the action notwithstanding, that’s a long day for anyone, and it is entirely the fault of the council. By trying to control the shape and scope of development in this city, they have burdened themselves unnecessarily with the cares and concerns of busybodies whose sole purpose is to hinder changes their neighbors desire to make or to force their neighbors to make changes they’d rather not. And practically none of it has to do with actual criminal conduct, which is the only thing God created government to address. Unfortunately, I expect more of the same for the future weeks, until there is a change in the mindset of the people of Saint Petersburg.

Now, I had not expected to be able to make this report, but I was able to find some time over the weekend to review the record. I cannot promise that I will be able to do so again next week, but I will make every effort. Thanks for listening!

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