As St. Petersburg proceeds with plans to build a controversial new pier, Pinellas County commissioners are expressing concern about the project in which the county has a sizable investment.
Their voices take on greater urgency as St. Petersburg council members prepare to vote next week on whether to release additional money for the next phase of the $50 million project, and as opponents declare they have amassed the signatures needed to force a public vote on whether the city can build the replacement pier known as the Lens.
"Our concern is that, No. 1, there is a limited pool of dollars and that any expenditure at this point, when there is an election that might change the path of the project, may result in the loss of those funds," said Ken Welch, chairman of the Pinellas County Commission.
"I think it's time for the mayor to hit the pause button," said Commissioner Charlie Justice. "It seems that we are talking about a potential vote in August. If the voters support it, then move forward."
The Lens is being built using tax increment financing, or TIF, a combination of city and county property tax dollars. The current inverted pyramid Pier is slated to close May 31, with demolition of the 1973 structure scheduled to follow in late summer.
As the project heads into a crucial juncture, Pinellas commissioners have been drawn into the political fracas. At a Tuesday commission meeting, residents pleaded with commissioners for help in stopping the Lens.
William Ballard, president of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, told commissioners the group has collected enough signatures to force a referendum to halt the project.
Commissioners asked their attorney and county administrator if they had any authority to stop demolition of the current pier, or to prevent the city from spending more money on the new one.
The short answer: No.
"We really have no authority to intervene and we certainly feel their frustration and their pain over this, and it's an awkward position to be in," Commissioner Susan Latvala said. "It's kind of sad that their city officials don't seem to be listening to them."
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster does not agree.
"I've never been afraid of a referendum and I've never been against a referendum," he said, adding that he has heard for a month that the group has enough signatures.
"If you have them, turn them in," he said. "I think that immediately buys you a pause … with a referendum looming, it would be my position that we not spend additional monies until we know what we're going to build."
St. Petersburg Council Chairman Karl Nurse welcomes the commissioners' input.
"The truth of it is, they are effectively 50-50 partners in this and so their opinion does matter," said Nurse, the first to sign the Concerned Citizens' petition.
"My expectation is that we are going to have a referendum in less than 120 days and either proceed or come up with Plan B," Nurse said. "The logical thing for us to do is not authorize anymore money when we know that we are clearly going to a referendum. … I suspect that I'm in the minority on that."
While the commissioners don't have the power to stop demolition of the inverted pyramid, county leaders could find themselves in a position to stop the Lens if St. Petersburg needs a variance for its construction.
Welch learned Friday that the city's application for a permit would be denied because the design did not meet requirements of the county's water and navigation code. County staff said there was a problem with the dimensions of the Lens' iconic canopy and the addition of walls.
The city said figures submitted by its consultants were incorrect and that it plans to give corrected information to the county this week.
Justice, who said the county rarely gets involved in a city project using TIF funds, said he didn't have a feel for how a vote on a variance for the project would go — if it came to that.
"I think the city of St. Petersburg owns this issue and the mayor and City Council have to live with the consequences of the success or failure of this thing," he said. "They are the ones who have been working through this thing for years."
Staff writer Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.