Tuesday, October 23, 2018
News Roundup

St. Pete sewage crisis ends with no charges, $326 million bill

ST. PETERSBURG — The city has put the legal fallout from the sewage crisis behind it.

Last week, St. Petersburg officials learned that the criminal investigation into the crisis — the city dumped up to 200 million gallons of waste from 2015-16 — would not result in any city employees facing charges.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Minor St. Petersburg sewage spill causes major headaches

That was contingent on the St. Petersburg City Council approving a consent order with the state pledging to spend $326 million to improve the sewage system that failed so spectacularly.

The council did just that on Thursday evening. They expressed reservations about how the city will pay for those repairs. But they were also ready to put months of blame, criticism and opprobrium behind them.

"I think this maps out our plan to fix the crisis," City Council member Darden Rice said. "It's important because it legally binds us into doing what we say we're going to do."

The city's top litigator, Joseph Patner, emailed council members last week to inform them that he and City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch met with state officials June 21 for about an hour. Both sides later had two phone conversations.

"We can now inform you that the (Pinellas-Pasco) State Attorney's Office is closing the State investigation initiated by FWC, contingent upon the city entering into a consent order ..." Patner wrote on July 11. "No charges will be brought against the City of St. Petersburg or any employee ... this concludes all criminal investigations into the sewage discharge issue."

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman on Thursday could not confirm that the investigation is over. But Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said both his office and FWC investigators agreed criminal charges were not warranted.

"They did not recommend any charges," McCabe said of the FWC report. "We agreed with them. The consensus was there was no criminal violations."

The sewage mess has been a drag on the re-election campaign of Mayor Rick Kriseman, who is locked in a tight race with former Mayor Rick Baker. Kriseman said his main focus is getting the city's sewer system fixed.

But Kriseman also wondered why neither he, nor any members of his staff, were interviewed by state investigators.

"I was surprised quite frankly," he said. "It would have been nice to have been asked some questions of what we knew and what we didn't know."

Especially the Albert Whitted sewage plant issue, the mayor said. City Council voted to close the sewage plant in 2011, and that decision was carried out by the Kriseman administration in 2015. A state report said closing one of the city's four sewage plants left it unable to handle the record rains that followed after a tropical storm and hurricane in 2016.

Baker has said closing Albert Whitted was a mistake. Kriseman has blamed bad advice from former city officials for shuttering the plant.

The mayor blamed that bad counsel on former Public Works Administrator Mike Connors (who abruptly retired in 2015 when the first sewage spills took place) and former Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt (who the mayor suspended, then fired, while the crisis raged in late 2016). Both "were comfortable with closing it" the mayor said.

The FWC has pursued the criminal investigation since September 2016, the height of the sewage spills. The mayor and his staff at the time initially declined to disclose how much it was dumping and insisted the media refer to the spill as "very diluted wastewater." Kriseman has also claimed the Northwest spill was "clean," which is why nearby residents weren't informed by more than a few posted signs of potential health risks.

The mayor has said that he regrets his administration communicated so poorly during the crisis. He then hired a $90,000 public works spokesman to improve those efforts.

Federal investigators also questioned sewer officials, but then in May the federal probe into the city's woes ended without comment. Patner has said that federal authorities were satisfied by the pending consent order.

There's still a federal lawsuit out there, filed against the city by a coalition of environmental groups who have accused the city of violating the Clean Water Act.

Most of the $326 million will be spent on improvements to the system's infrastructure over the next several years. It also includes an $810,000 fine levied by the state which the city will spend on anti-pollution programs.

Most of the projects included in the plan, including injection wells, filters, raintrays, manhole liners and a lining of collection system, are already underway. But the council still wondered how the city would pay for it all. If the Penny for Pinellas sales tax referendum passes in the fall, the city could gain $90 million over the next decade to spend on the consent order for the next decade. The rest could be covered by hikes in utility rates, reserves or even loans.

"I'm troubled with some parts of this," City Council member Ed Montanari said, "including the $326 million cost that goes along with this consent order that we need to approve but (without) having the finance plan attached to that."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected].

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: ST. PETERSBURG'S SEWAGE CRISIS

Hurricane Hermine leaves Tampa Bay area befouled (Sept. 2, 2016)

St. Pete sewer plant operator seeks whistleblower protections, saying city knew it shouldn't shutter Albert Whitted plant (Sept. 16, 2016)

Whistleblower says Northwest sewage spill was dirtier than St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says it was (Sept. 20, 2016)

Sunshine City? More like the Leaky City: St. Petersburg's sewage problem tied to pipe leaks (Oct. 20, 2016)

http://www.tampabay.com/news/st-petersburg-mayor-rick-kriseman-fires-one-official-demotes-another-over/2307007 (Dec. 20, 2016)

Rick vs. Rick: Closing Albert Whitted sewage plant could impact St. Petersburg mayor's race (May 29, 2017)

Comments
World Series: Red Sox will give Dodgers early dose of lefties

World Series: Red Sox will give Dodgers early dose of lefties

BOSTON — The Red Sox feel going with two lefties to start the World Series against the Dodgers is the right move.With LHP Chris Sale over the stomach issues he still, smirkingly, says were caused by a belly button ring and set to start Tuesday ...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Romano: Cops should get body cameras before cell phones get them

Romano: Cops should get body cameras before cell phones get them

Itís happened again. Another snippet of video. Another Florida cop being questioned.This time, itís in Coral Springs, and the cop is punching the midsection of a 14-year-old girl who is pinned on the ground with two cops above her, and her hands unde...
Updated: 4 hours ago
World Series: Dodgers manager Dave Roberts remains a Red Sox hero

World Series: Dodgers manager Dave Roberts remains a Red Sox hero

BOSTON — The Dodgers already had plenty to yell about, and to toast, when they gathered in the bar of Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel late Saturday to continue the celebration of their National League championship.But as a quick clip from the ALCS 14...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Buccaneers AfterMath: Dirk Koetter chooses his inconsistent kicker over his inconsistent quarterback

Buccaneers AfterMath: Dirk Koetter chooses his inconsistent kicker over his inconsistent quarterback

TAMPA — By beating the Browns 26-23 Sunday, the Buccaneers snapped a three-game losing streak and Tampa Bay breathed a collective sigh of relief.It wasn’t pretty, a misadventure full of interceptions, fumbles, penalties and missed kicks. ...
Updated: 6 hours ago
For killing his mother and niece, a half-century in prison for Pasco man

For killing his mother and niece, a half-century in prison for Pasco man

NEW PORT RICHEY ó Jason Rios will spend up to half a century in prison for the 2015 murders of his mother and niece and the attempted murder of another niece.Rios, 28, could be eligible to be released in 39 years. By then, he will be 67 ó and still s...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Bloomingdale video voyeur teacher: 353 new charges, $2 million bail

Bloomingdale video voyeur teacher: 353 new charges, $2 million bail

Investigators say they have uncovered an extensive amount of videos and images of under-age students secretly filmed while undressing by a Bloomingdale High School teacher who was arrested last month on a video voyeurism charge.Mark Ackett, 50, who r...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Tampa man charged with manslaughter for failing to call 911 after Plant High studentís fatal overdose

Tampa man charged with manslaughter for failing to call 911 after Plant High studentís fatal overdose

TAMPAFailures to call 911 leads to chargesA 19-year-old Tampa man is under arrest for his role in the death of a Plant High School senior who overdosed on heroin last year just weeks before graduation. Titan Goodson, of Harbour Island, was still in t...
Updated: 7 hours ago
East Lake, Steinbrenner girls move on to state golf tourney

East Lake, Steinbrenner girls move on to state golf tourney

VALRICO — East Lake and Steinbrenner advanced to the girls Class 3A state tournament on Nov. 6-7 at the Mission Inn and Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills.The Eagles shot a team total 340 on Monday afternoon at Buckhorn Springs Golf and Country Club....
Updated: 7 hours ago
Scenes from the Democratic rally in Tampa, featuring Joe Biden (w/video)

Scenes from the Democratic rally in Tampa, featuring Joe Biden (w/video)

"I think there's something different about this election," Biden told the crowd. "I really mean this. Let me get to the point. This election is bigger than politics. For real. This goes well beyond. You will never have voted in an election that's mor...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Trump threatens to cut aid to nations over migrant caravan

Trump threatens to cut aid to nations over migrant caravan

WASHINGTON ó President Donald Trump vowed Monday to cut off or "substantially" reduce aid to three Latin American nations, voicing fresh frustration as a growing caravan of migrants that originated in Honduras continued to make its way toward the U.S...
Updated: 8 hours ago