Tyranny Keeps Riding High

Joshua Black

Podcast: St. Petersburg, FL – Local Area News

Three council committees meet to discuss changes they will force you to make.


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Welcome to the 7th 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 three committee meetings held on February 14th. Happy Valentine’s Day!

The first committee to meet was the Budget, Finance, and Taxation Committee (aka BF&T). The first presentation was regarding the planned rate restructuring for the stormwater collection. The city has decided to charge ratepayers based on the square footage of “impervious area” on their property. This change will take place beginning October 1, if all goes according to plan. There are four tiers, based on square footage of IMPERVIOUS area, not lot size, not percentage of impervious area, etc.

The consultant explained that, in hard rain events, the stormwater that will enter the city’s collection system will not be affected by the pervious area, because most of that water will simply run off. No explanation was given, however, about the fact that most storms aren’t that hard. In fact, the consultant himself called it “a 100 year storm.” Basically, he recommends that the city penalize ratepayers for what MIGHT happen during a “100 year storm,” but not what the city does collect. In fact, the city is deliberately moving away from the metered collection measurements.

But, if the city accepts all of his recommendations, the property owners will be able to work with the city to reduce their rates. This is where the tyranny portion comes in.

First, though, the city’s portal will show you what your new liability will be based on the city’s assessment of your property’s impervious surface area. Then you can appeal their findings, so long as you do all the expensive work of showing via a professional service how their assessment is in error.

Then, whether you find the city’s assessment accurate or not, there are credits proposed so that, if you install certain “green infrastructures”–like rain barrels, rain gardens, or anything else designed by man to clear “suspended solids” from stormwater–then the city will lower your rates accordingly, based on the percentage of stormwater they estimate will be cleared by your property. Basically, it’s a reward for water they don’t have to treat.

In addition, you could make it so that your property actually retains all of the rain that falls on it. For that you would get a “stormwater management credit,” based on how much water the property would be expected to hold during that mythical 100 year storm.

And, if you live on the water and you install somethings to make sure the runoff is cleared before entering the Tampa Bay or other bodies of water, you could qualify for the Tidal Water Discharge Credit.

The consultant noted that these options are all very expensive. Anyone who did any of these recommended things would be spending thousands of dollars on their landscape. Maybe that’s the real motivation behind it? Investments in the companies that manufacture these things?

In any case, that puts these credits out of the reach of any otherwise poor person who happens to own a lot with a largely impervious surface area. Thus, only the rich would really benefit from the credits, and they might not even consider it worth the hassle. The proposed credits are not that great.

The council members expressed concerns that citizens won’t get enough notice. Foster noted that best marketing practices include 12 touches before expecting the target audience to begin to pay attention. The city marketing plan only schedules 5 public meetings and a couple of mailings. The staff didn’t seem too concerned about backlash, likely because the people who live here will be powerless to do anything about the changes once they happen.

The proposal won’t become official until September, but it seems likely to pass. Elections are coming up, but Montanari seems opposed to the measure and won’t likely field an opponent, anyway, and Kornell and Gerdes are in their last year on council regardless because of term limits. That leaves only Wheeler-Bowman up for reelection, and, even if she votes against it, you have 6 council members guaranteed to support it: Kornell, Gerdes, Rice, Driscoll, Gabbard, and Foster. I suppose that voter outrage can move those scales, but staff is fully ready to implement this plan, so either get loud or brace yourselves.

The next presentation involved an effort to get utilities buried underground along the Pinellas Bayway. Pinellas County has been doing that for the beach communities, and the Alliance of Bayway Communities is trying to get Duke Energy and Spectrum to agree to allow a contractor to do the same for them. The leader of that group asked for $25k from the city to get a cost estimate from the two engineering contractors in the county that are capable of handling the work. Gerdes expressed hesitation, not because he doesn’t agree with the cause, but because he expects Duke to resist the overture. Foster made a motion to request from the Alliance a memo regarding the results of their Monday meeting with Duke and continue the request until then. The entire committee agreed.

Next committee was the Public Services and Infrastructure Committee. Liz Abernathy from Planning and Michael Dema from the legal team took turns answering questions about the idea to expand the kinds of Development Review Commission decisions that could be appealed to city council before going to circuit court. Staff insisted that the new workload would be too great and that the outcomes wouldn’t change significantly. In fact, Dema seemed to suggest that things said by council members during these quasi-judicial hearings were being used against the city in court proceedings.

In the end, the idea to make changes was defeated, to the relief of staff and administration, and the change that Steve Kornell wanted to see the most wasn’t even put into the motion. He wanted to remove the rule that overturning the DRC decisions requires a supermajority of the council, but, being chair, he couldn’t make that motion. Based on the vote, I doubt it would have passed, anyway.

The next item on their agenda was to consider a new ordinance for sidewalk tables. In high pedestrian traffic areas downtown, some folks are putting up tables in areas where others have already paid for a permit to have a sidewalk cafe or a hotdog stand, and these folks aren’t happy about it, but the cops can’t arrest them or tell them to leave, because the law doesn’t prohibit them explicitly. This ordinance would be limited in area of enforcement to the area bounded by 4th street to the west, 5th Ave N to the north, Beach Drive to the east until south of 1st Ave S, and then 1st St until the boundary at 2nd Ave S for the south.

Council member Gina Driscoll said that public safety is the real reason for the proposal, saying that tables by their nature can impede safe flow of foot traffic in the event of an emergency, trusting that permitted tables for sidewalk cafes and the like are not the same sort of impediment because of the regulations they are said to comply with. However, the city attorney who helped to craft the piece said that the city was mindful of the idea that folks with information tables might feel targeted and that the city had taken steps to abide by previous court rulings so as not to run afoul of those concerns.

The committee forwarded the measure to the full city council, and first reading is for February 21.

For the Health, Energy, Resiliency, and Sustainability Committee, it was time to meet the new fleet management director, Randall Johnston. He spoke of his desire to move to a more green and cost efficient fleet. Now, to his perspective, cost efficient means buying higher priced vehicles if the maintenance cost and downtime are reduced enough to justify it. No telling if we the taxpayers will agree with his assessments of his purchases.

The challenge with making these cost efficiencies a reality is the fact that, to implement green fleets, new infrastructures are necessary for the city to be able to use and service the new technologies. This is one reason that electric vehicles have been so limited throughout the country, because electric charging stations are not cheap and are not plentiful. The city is also considering biosolid fuels and compressed natural gas (CNG).

During the course of discussion, Councilmember Darden Rice spoke about the pollution caused not only by the operation but also by the manufacturing and maintenance of standard fossil fuel burning automobiles, but she ignores the same pollution concerns for the manufacturing of electric vehicles and the electricity to run them. All the complaints about coal and nuclear power plants seem to ignore the fact that the cost of electricity would keep electric cars in the dream world without those polluting and high risk operations in place. Fortunately, God made the earth with trees to draw in the carbon dioxide we create by using fossil fuels and manufacturing the cars that use them and that use electricity.

As part of his green assessment, Johnston wants to get computerized measurements of the workload for each vehicle via telematics, which includes GPS tracking, among other things. Gerdes noted that some employees will be alarmed by the idea that their employer is tracking what they do with the vehicles they use for work. He floated the idea of giving a financial incentive for cooperation. I’m not sure that would assuage their concerns, and I’m not sure that piling another cost on top of the new equipment for implementing the measurements is a good idea.

For those who want to raise concerns about waste, I would point out that the every city function that is already provided in the marketplace is a waste of tax dollars. Trash collection, recycling collection, sewage treatment, event security, and many other services are already provided by private corporations and small businesses in the county to residents of other areas, some municipal and some unincorporated. The city could abandon all of these functions without loss of service to the residents, and the need for such a large fleet would then vanish. In addition, as long as no monopolies were granted in these areas of service, whether by declaration or by regulation, the cost to the city residents would actually fall, because the inefficiencies of government bureaucracies would be eliminated.

After his presentation, Sustainability Director Sharon Wright gave an update on the Integrated Sustainability Action Plan, called ISAP. Basically, the city wants to control growth, development, and everyday activities of residents by assessing whether what people are trying to do with their lives or businesses is “sustainable” in the city’s opinion. There are a lot of lofty statements of ideals and strategies, but it boils down to us paying the city to decide what we can and can’t do in the places we pay rent, mortgages, and taxes. No specifics were given during the summary, but the action plan should be available for review on the city’s website soon.

Speaking of increasing costs to the taxpayers, the search for a climate advisor has been narrowed, and the job will be filled soon.

The afternoon meeting consisted of awards, presentations, and council committee reports. We have previously reported on each of the committees. However, one thing I learned from last week is that, when council reports are read, the community members can use that time to raise concerns about the presentations that the committees have heard. You just get a yellow card from the clerk and write in your information, as well as the agenda item number that goes with the committee report you wish to speak about (you can actually do this for almost any item on the agenda). You get 3 minutes to speak your mind, and the council members have to listen. After all, you’re paying for it.

Speaking of listening, thank you for listening! This has been Saint Petersburg, Florida Area News, a production of the Reconstructionist Radio Network.

Links to Committee Agendas with Presentations (again, don’t download these files unless you have a lot of memory on your device; just view them):