Monday, May 28, 2018
News Roundup

Clearwater council votes to build fire station, give raises to top officials

CLEARWATER — The City Council has decided to build a new downtown fire station and give raises to the city manager and city attorney.

The council is also amicably parting ways with the Texas consultant who has steered the city's crackdown on the homeless.

All in all, council members had a busy meeting Thursday night. Here are the highlights:

Fire station

Last month, council members shot down a plan to build a $13.3 million fire station downtown. They had sticker shock because the cost had been budgeted at $8 million.

Thursday night, they considered two less expensive designs for the new station. They rejected the cheapest one, which resembled a bare concrete box. Instead they chose a stripped-down version of the original design, which will cut $1.9 million from the station's cost.

A couple of council members still weren't entirely satisfied.

"This is a real hold-your-nose vote I'm going to have to make," said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson. "I don't like this at all."

He and council member Bill Jonson questioned the new station's size. The 33,000-square-foot station will replace one that's 22,000 square feet.

"I still have trouble with the square footage of the building," said Jonson, the only one who voted against the new station.

Fire Chief Robert Weiss said that amount of space is what's needed for a modern, functional fire station that will double as Fire Department headquarters.

The station will be built next year on a vacant lot on the north side of Court Street just east of S Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. It will replace a station at Franklin Street and Garden Avenue.

"I think we'll all be very proud of the station once it's constructed," the fire chief said. "It's needed."

Raises for top officials

The council voted to give 8 percent raises to City Manager Bill Horne and City Attorney Pam Akin, who hadn't gotten raises since 2007. Their salaries had remained static during years of belt-tightening for Clearwater's government.

"When you take into account they haven't had a raise in five years, I don't think this is excessive at all," Gibson said. "We've navigated some pretty rough waters over the past five years, and our city manager has done a superb job of getting us through those times."

Horne earns $161,085 a year; Akin, $148,694.

In a 3-2 vote, council members Doreen Hock-DiPolito and Jay Polglaze joined Gibson in approving the raises.

Jonson and Mayor George Cretekos voted no. Jonson thought the raises were too high. Cretekos thought they were unfair after Clearwater's other employees just agreed to cuts in their pension plans.

As for the city attorney, Hock-DiPolito said, "She has kept us out of a lot of litigation."

Homeless crackdown

In his last appearance before the City Council, the city's homelessness consultant, Dr. Robert Marbut, said Clearwater's new get-tough laws are working and told officials to stay the course.

Marbut's contract is up. He was paid about $66,000 for his work.

Under his guidance, the city has been breaking up illegal encampments and shifting more of the homeless to the Pinellas Safe Harbor shelter next to the county jail.

The city banned sitting or lying down on sidewalks and rights-of-way on Clearwater Beach, in downtown and the East Gateway. Advocates for the homeless say the city is criminalizing homelessness, but Clearwater says the laws allow police to move the homeless to shelters and social service agencies.

Thursday night, Marbut said there's been an 80 percent drop in the number of homeless people on Clearwater's streets. A count on Thursday found about 60 homeless people, 34 of them in and around the Clearwater Main Library.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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