DUNEDIN — A staff recommendation that the city find another $700,000 in next year's budget to give to private organizations led to a squabble among city commissioners Thursday about political game-playing, favoritism and the use of reserves.
The discussion was sparked by a plan City Manager Rob DiSpirito unveiled during a morning workshop. He recommended that the city give $500,000 to the Dunedin Fine Art Center to supplement a state matching grant and $200,000 to the Dunedin Historical Museum for renovations.
That money would expand the facilities and programming, which DiSpirito said would bolster the city tax base by providing unique amenities to attract residents, merchants and tourists.
"By strategically investing in the future of these providers now," DiSpirito said, "we help them to become more financially sustainable over the long run, lowering the risk that the city of Dunedin will need to become involved."
Vice Mayor Ron Barnette and Commissioner Julie Scales called the donations a good investment in economic development.
However, DiSpirito did not convince Mayor Dave Eggers, who said the public should have a chance to weigh in, or Commissioner Dave Carson, who asked why the proposal wasn't brought up during summer budget talks.
With a city election six weeks away, Carson said the next commission should be allowed to debate the issue or the item should be sent to voter referendum. He and Eggers are running for re-election Nov. 6.
DiSpirito's recommendation is part of a larger initiative he says would help spur economic growth by enhancing "quality of life" amenities at a time when construction costs and loan interest rates are at historic lows.
In addition to the art and history buildings, DiSpirito wants to set aside another $100,000 to build classrooms inside the Blatchley House at Weaver Park.
DiSpirito also suggested pouring a percentage of code enforcement fines into an expanded "residential facade" program, aimed at improving distressed neighborhoods or properties.
Among DiSpirito's arguments for funding to the art center and museum:
•The city has partnered for 40 years with the art center, which has a rare chance at a $500,000, 2-to-1 state matching grant. To be eligible, the center has to raise $1 million by July. The center would use the funds to build the first floor of a new west wing.
•The art center is an "economic driver" that generates revenue for the city — $588,000 over the past two years alone. The center also offers discounts to city residents and employees.
•An 800-square-foot addition to the history museum would provide a Main Street entrance, increasing visibility 35 to 45 percent among passersby.
•Expansion would allow the museum to obtain national accreditation and incorporate environmentally friendly features, leading to lowered operating costs.
•Nearby cities have contributed large sums to arts and entertainment, including St. Petersburg and Safety Harbor, which recently absorbed its struggling historical museum into the city parks department.
DiSpirito said the two facilities, as well as the Blatchley House renovations, could be funded one of three ways: through savings on a bond refinancing; a 20-year bank note, which the city would pay off at a rate of $60,000 to $70,000 a year with Penny for Pinellas funds; or bundling the debt with a larger capital project.
None would impact operations or require raising taxes or cutting public services, he said. Capital funds can't be used for most operational expenses.
Eggers said he hesitated to spend the money when, like the city, other private groups are downsizing and might approach the city for help.
Carson ticked off a list of questions for DiSpirito. According to Carson, DiSpirito's earlier "behind the scenes" conversations about the proposal focused on loans rather than giving away city money. DiSpirito's current recommendation is "lacking in transparency," he said.
Carson said he's not in favor of borrowing money that will generate long-term debt.
"It's about needs versus wants. We are still very much in the need phase," he said.
DiSpirito said his staff would continue exploring funding options and come back before the commission within 30 days.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.