Baker: No inside deal with Amscot
ST. PETERSBURG — Bombarded with complaints, city officials said Wednesday they will likely drop a plan to discontinue accepting utility payments at the popular Enoch Davis Center, but stopped short of promising to cut ties with Amscot Financial.
"I think we are going to be able to work this out," said City Council chairman Jamie Bennett. "If 46,000 people paid their bills there, it is for a reason. Why would we upset the apple cart?"
If the council votes to continue the program, Baker said he won’t fight the decision. "If the council decided they wanted to put that back in the budget, we would do that," said Baker, who has close ties to a top Amscot executive.
Amscot began accepting St. Petersburg utility payments Monday. Baker disputed allegations that his close relationship with Amscot executive Deveron Gibbons led to the deal between the company and the city. He said a committee of three staff members, including Internal Services Administrator Mike Connors, selected Amscot, not him.
"I was very specific to Mike Connors that I wanted to make sure we go through an RFP process and allow the committee to make a decision," he said.
Gibbons, Amscot’s vice president of public affairs, was a significant supporter and fundraiser in both of Baker’s campaigns for mayor. Gibbons has also said he will run for mayor in 2009. He declined to comment Wednesday.
Dozens of residents flooded City Hall with complaints this week after learning the city would no longer accept utility payments at the community center, 1111 18th Ave. S, after Dec. 31.
It's unclear whether the city will continue to allow Amscot to accept payments in the long run. "We will have to see if that's necessary as we go forward," Baker said.
Bennett said he was uncomfortable with the city's relationship with Amscot, but wanted to learn more about the company before taking action.
"I'm not crazy about it," Bennett said. "But they do do business here in St. Pete. If they want to offer bill payment at their place, then so be it."
But council member Karl Nurse, who called Amscot a "legal loan shark" Tuesday, said he won't be satisfied until the city ends its relationship with the company.
"Keeping the service at Enoch Davis is a good thing," he said. "I don’t think it is a good thing that we are keeping Amscot."
Baker said he has not seen any evidence to suggest the company preys on poor people.
"I would be glad to look at any evidence of these allegations," he said.
Cristina Silva, Times Staff Writer