Some Tyrants Lose, But We Still Pay

Joshua Black

Podcast: St. Petersburg, FL – Local Area News

The notes from Thursday’s all day council meeting at city hall.


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Welcome to the 6th edition of the Saint Petersburg Florida Area News Podcast for the year 2019. I’m your host, Joshua Black, and, today, we will cover the city council meeting that took place on February 7, 2019.

When I entered the building around 8:40 AM, there was still a line at the security checkpoint downstairs. This is unusual for a morning meeting. I found out why when I made it upstairs.

But first we must note that council passed both Consent Agenda A and Consent Agenda B unanimously, minus the items pulled by Councilmember Ed Montanari, council vice chair for this year (from A, item 5, and from B, item 10). Actually, those pulled items passed unanimously, too, but after a full report from staff and questions from the council. Oddly, though, for consent agenda item A-5, the cost to the city of $500,000 was not mentioned in the summary. It was mentioned in the staff report. Unless you had read the backup material, you may not have noticed that except that Montanari had pulled it to reports.

All told, the Consent Agenda as passed spent $7.3M without a debate or a report.

But that’s not what brought so many people out this morning. Remember that the Health, Energy, Resiliency, & Sustainability (HERS) Committee Chair councilmember Darden Rice had made a big deal about trees, especially older trees before she left in the middle of the last meeting to drive to PSTA? All of the people not obligated to jobs that morning who supported her position were taking turns at the podiums during open forum speaking in favor of more government regulations, including mandates for private property, regarding trees.

After they finished, the next item was regarding another downtown redevelopment proposal, this time for the southeast corner of the intersection at 3rd Ave N and 5th Street, across the street from the MIrror Lake Library. The appeal of city approval for the proposal drew 45 cards and a court reporter, likely because the city is being sued by the Bezoo project for their denial of its application for approval. The leading opponent for this project was the activist group Preserve the Burg, whose vision is to keep historically significant items from being replaced.

The proposal involves the demolition of several older buildings, which are used today as rentals to residential tenants on a month to month lease. The rent for these buildings is rather low, but not all 97 units are filled, though that may be because the owner made his plans to rebuild clear to the tenants last year. The reason for rebuilding is to increase the number of units from 97 to 270, and the owner has designed the project to include commercial space on the street level. The project does include 300 parking spaces inside the new structure.

The Development Review Commission (DRC) approved the project 7-0 after several revisions. The appellant (Preserve the Burg) still objected, saying that the aesthetics were not in keeping with the surrounding neighborhood, the buildings should be preserved because of their historical status, and that the height of such a project is more suited for a property on the Bay or on some vacant lot that didn’t have buildings already.

Councilmembers Gina Driscoll and Brandi Gabbard both complained that the rules for redevelopment didn’t allow them to vote in favor of the appeal. They stated that everything they heard indicated that the developer had followed the rules in good faith and that they could not in good conscience vote against the project, even though they supported the view of the activists who had appealed. One sticking point for Driscoll was that the buildings in question had been up for demolition from 2005 to 2016. During the intervening time between 2016 and now, Preserve the Burg had made no effort to purchase the buildings and were unable to persuade the building owners to get them designated as historical for preservation purposes.

In a surprise to me and several observers, there were actually at least 4 people who spoke in favor of the project. One is an attorney for an elderly man in the Driftwood Neighborhood whose sale of his home is on hold while he resides in a nursing home with failing health. The sale of his property would allow him to pay the high medical bills associated with the care he is receiving. The Driftwood preservation effort is scheduled for a quasi-judicial hearing on February 21.

In the end, the appeal failed 5-2, with only Rice and Steve Kornell voting to stop the project (Councilmember Amy Foster was absent all day, apparently attending to family). Kornell felt that the fact that the proposal didn’t meet one criterion (out of 16) should have forced another revision, and Rice lamented the loss of market rate affordable housing in addition to agreeing with Kornell. However, Mayor Rick Kriseman noted that upholding the appeal to stop the project would likely result in yet another lawsuit that the city would likely lose in court. The legal team for the council seemed to agree.

This quasi-judicial meeting took all of the morning and some of the afternoon. Council took 40 minutes for lunch. After lunch, everyone from the gallery had disappeared.

Remember that a consultant asked for $10,000 to study the juvenile auto theft trend in the city? In his quarterly report, Police Chief Anthony Holloway stated that juvenile auto theft is actually down sharply. Part of it is clearly because the police are catching a few more of the thieves, most of whom are likely responsible for more than one burglary. Unfortunately, the standard practice is still to imprison the thieves, not to compel them to pay restitution to the victims. We’ll get there some day.

The police chief said that they are still meeting their target for responding to true emergencies in under 7 minutes, but, as the city grows, they may need to add more officers to maintain that level of service. However, it seems to me that most of the city’s population growth isn’t by annexation but by increased density. It is not guaranteed that higher population means more calls. Still, 7 minutes is a long time to wait if you have an intruder in your home or a gun in your face–and that’s if you can get to the emergency button or a phone to make the call, which is the only way that police can know if you are in danger. Personal firearms are still the best line of defense.

The report for the 40th Ave Bridge was next. As promised in November, Brejesh and his team presented before Council a contract for $468,320 to have part of the bridge replaced in preparation for closing down the bridge entirely for 4-6 weeks. The final details for the bridge closure are still being worked out with FDOT, thus the bridge won’t be closed for at least 7 more weeks, because the engineering team wants to give residents 3-4 weeks’ notice before they do that.

The next item was the Fire Department seeking approval of a separate contract to adjust the way calls are dispatched for medical emergencies, in concert with other EMS services in Pinellas County. Basically, for calls that are deemed true emergencies, the fire department would still respond. For calls that are lower level emergencies, the fire department would still respond. For calls that aren’t actual emergencies, the contracted ambulance service would respond alone (they usually follow up, anyway).

Personally, I don’t think I like the ambulance service contracted for Pinellas County. When I had a medical episode, the paramedic treated me poorly, taping an IV pick line over a burn I had suffered at work and generally speaking tersely. It turned out I had an inflamed appendix. I received emergency surgery. But he treated me like I was some habitual offender or something. Unfortunately, I didn’t get his name, and this was back in 2012.

I don’t think that attitude could survive in a free market. But, by law, these countywide contracts prohibit competition.

The union for the fire department is obviously opposed to it, because they believe that the extra workload brought by increasing numbers of calls should be addressed by increasing the number of firefighters. Nevermind the fact that the vast majority of calls are traffic related. Structure fires are more rare than ever before.

Council decided to refer the matter to the March 28 Public Services & Infrastructure Committee meeting instead of acting immediately. Fire chief Large complained that the council didn’t trust him and his colleagues enough. He felt that the simple presentation should have been enough to convince them to allow them to implement this separate agreement that doesn’t affect the rest of the way the department interacts with the countywide 9-1-1 center. If he worked for a private corporation, he might have had that leeway. Unfortunately, he doesn’t.

Councilmember Gabbard noted that this item had been inexplicably moved to the Consent Agenda, as noted on the Additions and Deletions sheet, but had been moved back to Reports without explanation. She was glad that it happened, but that makes me think that the fire chief who objected to the greater scrutiny had something to do with moving it from Reports to Consent. Again, he may have had the discretion he seeks were he working for a private company. Unfortunately, he doesn’t.

The next report was the solar co-op that the city has invested in as part of its “sustainability” initiative. There were a lot of efforts, a lot of sign-ups, and a lot of smiles. No regrets for using force to prop a particular industry. Favoritism is considered good when it produces desired outcomes.

The Solar & Energy Loan Fund, which is also partially funded by the city, also gave its rather positive report. They have raised some private dollars, but not a lot.

Councilmember Rice then gave the Tampa Bay Water Report. No significant changes were discussed, and no council action was taken.

This was followed by the Pier Report, which came in parts. The city has allocated $80M in different phases and for different purposes to the demolition and rebuilding of the Pier. This is $30M in excess of the original $50M and does not include the money approved at the beginning of November for the seawall improvements. These requests were to spend moneys already allocated for the pier, not to request additional funds, but the development of a roundabout at Bayshore Blvd NE and 2nd Ave NE will exceed funding levels unless they can find better options. So I guess we’ll be overbudget by close to $40M by the time the project ends. That’s almost double the cost and was easily predicted by yours truly when the project first began (I was a resident of Pinellas Park at the time, but I had friends here; ironically, several of them have moved to Pinellas Park).

The requests for approval of funds disbursement also called for spending $300,000 to one artist for a suspended art structure over the Pier approach and $150,000 to another for an Origami-inspired red pelican with two more realistic red pelicans on its head. The smaller pelicans cost about $8500 each. It was also noted that tariffs on aluminum forced the price up from $140,000. I just want to know why we are spending so much in taxes on out of town artists…

The Sewer Report was next and included about $400,000 in disbursement requests. Claude Tankersley also noted that the city had ten more unauthorized discharges, 9 being reclaimed water and 1 being actual sewage sludge. He didn’t mention any expected fines, but you can count on DEP to issue them.

Actually, before the second art project funding was approved, city council shifted to a new business item (G7 on the Additions and Deletions notice). It was a resolution to urge the Pinellas County Commission to amend current code to lay more rules on dog and cat owners. The Bible does say that a righteous man cares for the lives of the beasts he owns, but I’m not certain the rules proposed fully reflect that. Saying that pets can’t be kept in kennels/pens/cages outdoors for more than 4 hours in the night seems excessive to me. But the council passed it unanimously.

Most of the rest of the new business items were referrals to committees, so I will cover them as they come up on the calendar. The one item that wasn’t involved renaming one stretch of 37th Street South “Skyway Marina Boulevard.” The group that led the effort said that they would pay for the new signage and that state law doesn’t require fees for driver’s license updates caused by street name changes, so it, too, passed unanimously. That stretch is between 38th Avenue South and 54th Ave South.

Finally, it was time for the committee reports, and council chair Charlie Gerdes was ready to go home. I don’t blame him. I think there were maybe one full hour’s worth of breaks, including 40 minutes for lunch, 15 minutes during the quasi-judicial hearing, and ten minutes another time. The meetings had started at 8:30 AM, and it was around 6:45 PM. Tyranny demands a high price, and these councilmembers were paying it.

To lessen the burden somewhat, Gerdes requested that councilmembers not read their full reports but only move to have them received and filed, unless there was an action required for council to take. The only report that required council action was BF&T, approval for the $40,000 study to see if increasing fees on builders could increase funds for housing subsidies. It passed unanimously, unfortunately.

But the last committee report did not pass without a hitch. A young man stood up to oppose the Storefront Conservation Corridor Plan, and this is what he had to say (audio only).

He made great points. Here’s hoping that the city council listens.

Speaking of listening, thank you for listening. Don’t forget to review the council agenda for February 14th. We will cover that and the prior committee meetings in our next episode.

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