New money feud to watch: A new Pier versus a new police station

ST. PETERSBURG — They are the two costliest projects in recent city history.

A $64 million police station. A new $50 million Pier.

For years, the two projects coexisted peacefully, buoyed by surging tax revenues and supporters from different interest groups. They were set to break ground either next year or in 2014.

But Mayor Bill Foster's decision last month to scrap the police station because of a lack of money puts the projects in a sudden political cage match. Two step in, one steps out.

And for many, it doesn't seem fair that the Pier, a seeming luxury, is the project left standing.

State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who is flirting with running for mayor, wasted little time after Foster's decision, tweeting: "A station should take precedent over a pier."

David McKalip, a tea party activist who plans to run for City Council next year, also took aim at the mayor's decision.

"So St. Petersburg can't afford a new, $64 million police station?" he wrote to the Tampa Bay Times. "Remember where our city 'leaders' have placed their priorities. A $50 million memorial pier to the politicians? Check."

While the debate sounds like a common-sense reconsideration of City Hall priorities during a time of shrinking budgets, the reality is that it would be difficult to shift money from the Pier to fund the police station — at least the way the projects are set up now.

A 1-cent sales tax approved by county voters in 2007 is slated to pay for the police station. Such tax money is generally spent on countywide infrastructure improvements.

The Pier money will come from property taxes produced in a special district that covers 309 acres in downtown St. Petersburg. Such tax districts are approved by the county and intended to pay for projects that help lift the economic development potential of an area, such as a tourism draw like the Pier.

Plans for the police station ran aground when its particular pot of money, the sales tax, slumped because of the economy. Rather than produce $50 million for the police station, it's on track to produce $32 million.

The shortfall caused Foster to rethink the $64 million headquarters. He and his staff are considering a range of options that include rehabilitating the existing station or building a scaled-down project that would cost half of what had been proposed.

The Pier has $50 million set aside for it out of a total of $95 million spent in the downtown district on city projects like the Progress Energy Center for the Arts, a mixed-use transportation facility, park improvements and pedestrian improvements. That money is good until 2032 or it runs out, whichever comes first.

Foster said he believes both projects can be built. He just wants to scale back the police station.

"They are two wildly different projects, both of which can be built with the moneys currently identified," he said.

Even Pier supporters, however, said it was inevitable that once the police station came up short, attention would shift to the money set aside for a new pier.

"I'm pretty involved in the public arena and even I don't understand all the nuances with the special taxing districts," said Ed Montanari, who was the vice chairman of the Pier task force. "So your average citizen is going to say, 'Can you just shift the money from the Pier to the police?' I wish things were that easy."

It may not be easy, but Kriseman, who was on the City Council from 2000 to 2006, thinks it can be done.

He said the boundaries could be adjusted to include the police station in the downtown taxing district. Now it's a block and a half away in its own separate special taxing district.

"The current design of the Pier is basically a $50 million boardwalk," Kriseman said. "It's a lot of money for what we're getting. Can't we shift those moneys to the police station and still get a nice boardwalk? It won't be a $50 million boardwalk, but it'll be nice."

Adjusting the boundaries might be possible, said Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn, who noted it would require votes by the City Council and Pinellas County Commission.

It's far from a sure thing, however.

Adjusting the boundaries might complicate the definition of the taxing districts. The downtown district was created in 1981 to chase away slum and blight. If boundaries are adjusted, a new study would have to be produced to justify the expansion. Winn said he's not sure if the entire area would have to be analyzed and, if so, several downtown blocks could be exempted because they are no longer blighted.

Shifting the money from the Pier to the station is more problematic. That's because the taxing districts were created to keep the money within that particular boundary. That was the promise made to the property owners who have been paying taxes there since the 1980s, Winn said.

"That's why the law says you have to spend the money in the area you collect it," Winn said. "There's a fairness factor to it."

Plausible or not, the Pier versus the police station showdown is the talk of the town.

"I'm not sure if it's legal," said Pinellas County Chairwoman Susan Latvala.

"But if it is, yes, I think we should consider shifting it to the police station. We have to be more creative in these times. What's more important? Public safety or this icon on the waterfront?"

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@tampabay.com.

New money feud to watch: A new Pier versus a new police station 04/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 7, 2012 11:06pm]

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