Pinellas Democrats get TIF dollars to spruce up HQ
ST. PETERSBURG — The city recently awarded $338,379 to 32 businesses and organizations in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area to spruce up their properties.
But it was the smallest grant — $531— that kicked up the most political dust.
That’s the amount of money pocketed by the Pinellas County Democratic Party to landscape its headquarters at 2250 1st Avenue N.
The building lies within the boundaries of the CRA and is eligible for the grant, which is paid out of money generated by the rise in property taxes within the district.
City attorneys say nothing in state law prohibits a political party from getting taxpayer money for improvements. Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office had final approval on the grants.
But City Council member Ed Montanari doesn’t think it’s right.
“Money’s fungible. You can spend money to help them make their building look better and that frees up other funds for political activity,” Montanari said at a council meeting last week.
He cast the lone vote against the grants, which was tied into a transfer that will allow the city to give $170,000 to Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy to renovate a local historic landmark, the 10,000-square-foot Merriwether Building at 951 22nd St. S.
Montanari voted against the grants, but in favor of funding the Merriwether.
County Democratic chairwoman Susan McGrath said she didn’t see anything wrong with applying for taxpayer funds to plant native plants to improve the landscaping.
“The intention of the grant is to beautify the area. We want to be a good neighbor,” she said.
She said the party will spend at least $500 of its own money on the landscaping project.
Council member Steve Kornell suggested removing the Democratic Party grant out of an “abundance of caution and fairness.”
“Why let something so small be a stumbling block?” he asked. But his motion to delay the grants failed for lack of a second vote.
An attempt to remove the Democratic Party grant by City Administrator Gary Cornwell, who represents the mayor’s office at council meetings, also failed after city attorneys said that could expose the city to legal complications if it is seen as awarding — or removing — grants based on the nature of the business.
“Outside the legal ramifications, we were kind of indifferent,” said Kriseman’s chief of staff Kevin King about the Democratic Party grant.
The grants are the first step in the newly-minted CRA, which covers southern neighborhoods like Midtown and Childs Park and extends north to Kenwood. They’re designed to entice local businesses to improve their outward appearance to lure additional private investment.
Over a third of the grants were clustered on the northern part of the CRA along Central and 1st Avenue N. Kenwood and Grand Central are booming and increasingly white while much of the CRA is poor and black.
But city officials said the purpose of this year’s grants were to beautify main commercial corridors. And not many residents applied for grants to paint their houses, they said.
Rick Smith, the city’s lead CRA official, said, if the money for the Merriwether Building is included, 70 percent of the grant money was paid out south of 1st Avenue S.
“It turned out to be very geographically equitable,” Smith said.
Several council members said they wanted to see more transparency in the process. Smith said the city is considering tweaking the grant selection process to include the CRA’s Citizen Advisory Committee. This year, city staff and the mayor’s office made the picks.
The average grant was just under $11,000. The largest for extensive exterior renovations to Art Pool Gallery, 2030 Central Avenue, was $26,519.
Montanari is the only Republican on the council. Kriseman is a Democrat.
He’d oppose any money going to Republicans or Greens or any other political party, Montanari said.
“I don’t really understand how we can do something like this, ethically,” Montanari said.
Times Researcher Caryn Baird and Staff Writer Mark Puente contributed to this story.