St. Petersburg City Council's sewer showdown runs deep into the night
ST. PETERSBURG —Another long-winded chapter in the city’s sewage crisis unfolded during Thursday night’s marathon City Council meeting as members raised their voices, exchanged recriminations and offered some memorable quips.
It started as a discussion of a $2.3 million contract to expand capacity at the city’s Southwest sewage plant. But as the sun set it turned into a throwdown between Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration and council members.
It wasn’t until 8½-hours after the meeting started that rancor turned into consensus: Officials agreed that the city needs to build a fourth sewer plant to replace the one that officials shut down in April 2015.
Florida’s fifth-largest city has been running on three sewer plants since officials shut down the Albert Whitted waterfront treatment facility last year. That’s one of the major factors blamed for the 200 million gallons of sewage that has overflowed from the city’s sewers over a 14-month period.
That move has been blamed for overwhelming St. Petersburg’s aging sewers, resulting in 200 million gallons of sewage being released since last year.
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Here’s what went down Thursday as the midnight hour approached at City Hall:
Council members objected to the ambiguity in a proposed sewer contract with Brown and Caldwell to design the expansion of the Southwest sewage plant. The global consulting firm was already at the center of another sewer-related controversy: a 2014 report that contained warnings of a sewage crisis if the city shut down the Albert Whitted plant (the city did that in 2015, and the overloaded system was soon releasing millions of gallons of sewage.)
In September a whistleblower in the sewage department revealed the existence of the 2014 report, which the mayor and City Council said they never saw. The mayor suspended two top sewer officials while City Council ordered an investigation into whether the report was intentionally buried.
The investigator said the report wasn’t buried — but also that Brown and Caldwell failed to cooperate with the inquiry. Earlier Thursday, council members criticized the firm and ordered the investigator to interview Brown and Caldwell project manager Todd Bosso to complete the report.
Later, as the meeting continued, Bosso discussed the new contract — but not the 2014 report. City Council was concerned that the contract had so many conditions. But Russo said those were needed because the city expects the firm to work at a breakneck pace to expand the Southwest plant before next year’s rainy season ends.
But council members didn’t like the terms of the deal. So they began to whittle down the contract to $750,000 during an unusual negotiation from the dais that made City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch visibly uncomfortable.
At one point she urged Brown and Caldwell to consult with their own attorneys.
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Meanwhile, another point of contention — whether the city should reopen Albert Whitted — boiled over.
City Council member Ed Montanari made a motion to reopen the closed treatment plant to help alleviate the sewage mess.
Public Works Administrator Claude Tankersley — who earlier that day got a vote of confidence from the mayor despite a report that called his department dysfunctional — then made an impassioned argument for the opposite, saying the shuttered plant could never be reopened before the 2017 rainy season.
“That will fail,” he said.
Yet it was just two months ago that Tankersley himself had said the city should reopen the plant. But he later backtracked, saying contractors had told him it would be too expensive and take too long to re-open the plant, which had fallen into disrepair since it was closed in 2015.
That’s why that option was left out of Kriseman’s plan, unveiled in November, to replace the worst pipes in the city, seal leaky manholes and expand sewage capacity at the city’s other three plants at a cost of $304 million.
Montanari pushed back with his own estimate that it would cost just $4-5 million to reopen Albert Whitted, far less than the estimate from city officials.
City Adminstrator Gary Cornwell stepped in and chastised council members for reopening the Albert Whitted discussion. He said they need to support Kriseman’s plan.
“You asked for a plan, we brought you a plan,” Cornwell said. “Please let us implement the plan.”
That raised City Council member Steve Kornell’s dander. Stop blaming the council, he said loudly. He said Kriseman’s $304 million fix was too little, too late.
City Council member Jim Kennedy then jumped into the fray, heatedly reminding Cornwell that last year the mayor resisted spending the city’s $6.5 million BP oil spill settlement on sewer improvements.
Kornell also criticized Kriseman for not being at the meeting. The mayor had been there hours earlier to address an unrelated sewage issue, but was long gone during this argument.
“Maybe someone should be here tonight,” Kornell said.
Enter Darden Rice. The council member had backed Montanari’s call to reopen Albert Whitted, but after listening to Cornwell and Tankersley, she said she could no longer do so.
Several council members then rallied to the administration’s side, saying reopening the shuttered plant would distract from following the mayor’s plan.
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In the end, the council approved a preliminary $750,000 contract to design upgrades for the Southwest plant. Montanari’s Hail Mary to reopen Albert Whitted fell short for lack of a second.
But not before one last twist. At 11:15 p.m., right before exhausted council members were about to vote on the pared down Brown and Caldwell contract, Kornell attempted to again persuade council members to reconsider re-opening Albert Whitted.
But only Montanari would support it. Kornell angrily withdrew his motion when it became clear that it would fail.
“I think we are making a stubborn refusal to consider Albert Whitted,” Kornell said. “I think it’s a mistake and it’s about (preserving) waterfront acres.”
The extended, often raucous, discussion was worth it, said council chairwoman Amy Foster.
She noted that Tankersley said he also supported opening a fourth sewer plant, although neither Tankersley nor council members discussed how much that would cost or where such a plant might be located.
And in the short term the council moved forward with the Southwest expansion.
Nevertheless, Kennedy said, the progress hadn’t been pretty.
“We made some extremely sloppy sausage up here,” he quipped.