Council members urge Mayor Rick Kriseman to spend more BP settlement money on sewer system

Members say the mayor's plans for $6.5M in BP money don't put enough into the system.
Published October 15 2015
Updated October 16 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman's plan to spend $6.5 million from the BP settlement got picked apart Thursday by City Council members who argued it doesn't include enough money for the city's inundated sewer system.

"When you have leaky pipes in your house and you get an inheritance from your aunt, you fix your pipes," said Council Chairman Charlie Gerdes, who proposes the city should set aside at least $3.25 million on sewer repairs.

Kriseman, however, wants to devote $1 million to sewer repair from the settlement BP paid the city for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Kriseman would spend the rest on myriad programs and projects, including $1 million for a bike-share program, $350,000 for a private commuter ferry that would cross Tampa Bay, $1 million for an arts endowment and $250,000 to help the University of South Florida buy a new marine research vessel.

The variety of expenditures is tied to a concept that Kriseman said would "guide our city onto a platform of resiliency, sustainability and livability."

But other council members joined Gerdes in objecting to not using more of the settlement money for the city's sewer system. After a series of heavy rains, the city's wastewater department was forced to discharge more than 31 million gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage in early August.

"To me, this is an opportunity," council member Karl Nurse said. He said the city has only budgeted half of the $44 million that's needed for repairs in the next five years. Nurse said he would like to spend all of the BP money on sewer repair.

Other council members didn't go that far, but all said the city needs to focus attention and cash on the issue.

Kriseman reminded council members that the "historic" rain event forced other cities to dump sewage. He listed Tampa, Clearwater, Largo, Tarpon Springs and Pinellas County as other local jurisdictions that spilled millions of gallons.

Council member Wengay Newton said comparing St. Petersburg's woes with other cities wasn't helpful. He blamed the spills on the city's 2011 decision to close the Albert Whitted Sewage Treatment Plant, which was shuttered in April.

"Other cities didn't close their sewer or dump into their preserves," said Newton, referring to a 15.4 million gallon dump of untreated sewage into Clam Bayou.

Not all council members thought the mayor's list was too scattered. Many voiced support for $1 million to create an arts endowment to allow the city to expand its annual grant by $40,000. Others said $2.4 million for climate change action plans or $1 million to fund a bike share program had value.

"I hate to see this as a zero-sum game and accidentally get into conversations where we pit one against the other," said council member Darden Rice.

Other council members introduced new ideas into the mix. Council member Amy Foster said the city needs to spend more money on its homeless population. Changes in federal regulations mean the city and county need to build more affordable short-term housing for the homeless or risk losing funding.

One of Kriseman's BP money proposals — to spend $266,250 to buy property adjacent to the Shore Acres recreation center — is already off the list.

The council voted to pay for the purchase from its budget, possibly reimbursing the cost later with money from its Weeki Wachee trust fund.

The council decided to continue the discussion on how to divvy up the BP settlement next Thursday. At that meeting, city staffers will present a more detailed explanation of the sewer system's immediate needs.

Kriseman said dedicating the bulk of the BP money to sewer repair would miss a historic opportunity for the city to think big.

"Instead of being reactive, it's a chance for the city to be more proactive in how we do things," Kriseman said.

The mayor, in a rare move, spent almost the entire three-hour meeting with council members as they met informally as a Committee of the Whole.

"We will always have leaky pipes in this city," he said.

Later Thursday, at the City Council meeting, several residents from neighborhoods near the city's Southwest wastewater treatment plant asked council members to fix the city's sewer problems.

Walter Donnelly, who is working with city wastewater officials on a task force, said the city needs to undertake a systemwide review.

Council members assured them that they were up to the task.

"You have our full, undivided attention," Nurse said.

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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