ST. PETERSBURG — For two years, City Council member Jeff Danner has tried to fulfill a promise to his constituents and get a dog park built in his district.
At first glance, it seemed like the kind of project that would easily win the approval of his colleagues. The park would be paid for with dedicated recreation funds, it would be built on 2 acres of blighted land under a highway overpass and it would create additional green space near one of the city's busiest, urban corridors.
But after years of council members spending thousands of dollars on such pet recreation projects without much objection, the mood is different these days.
Citing budget concerns and an unwillingness to spend nearly $200,000 on a park for dogs, several council members criticized the project Thursday. At a time when St. Petersburg might have to cut $10-million out of its budget because of a recent statewide reform on property taxes, the city needs to be more judicious with its spending, they said.
"Just because we are allowed to spend this money doesn't mean we have to spend it," said council member Leslie Curran, the only council member to vote against the park during a committee meeting Thursday. "I have a real concern with putting dogs first."
"I can't support spending nearly a quarter million dollars on a dog park. That's just me," said council member Wengay Newton, who walked out of the meeting before a vote was taken. "It's nothing against Mr. Danner. It is about being fiscally responsible."
Danner said he understands why some of his colleagues would be reluctant to approve the dog park, but added that the city should use its recreation fund to improve the quality of life of its residents.
"We are not increasing taxes to do this," he said. "This park would be located at a gateway to the city. It would take an area that's being used for illegal dumping and turn it into a beautiful park."
The $191,785 park would be paid for with money from the city's Weeki Wachee Fund, which can only be used for recreation and beautification projects.
It would sit under Interstate 275 near Central Avenue in the Historic Kenwood neighborhood. The vacant stretch of land, which is owned by the Department of Transportation, would have to be fenced in and accessorized with benches, waste bins and a parking lot.
The council will vote on the dog park sometime in late April. A date has not been set yet.
About $14.4-million sits in the city's Weeki Wachee Fund, money earned from the sale of a 440-acre recreation area in Hernando County in 2001. More than $2.1-million of the fund has already been spent on recreation projects, including skate parks, dog parks, a boat dockage project, and the Vinoy Basin Boardwalk.
If the city wants to use the fund wisely, the council should address neighborhoods where there are no playgrounds, Newton said.
Newton, former president of the Westminster Heights Neighborhood Association, said he and his neighbors have been asking for a playground for seven years, but were told the city did not have enough funding.
"There is a difference between a want and a need," he said. "These children have to play in the street and we are talking about a dog park."
But council Chairman Jamie Bennett said it would be shortsighted to write the project off because it is a dog park.
"It's a people park," he said. "It's a park where people bring dogs. It's a place where neighborhoods congregate."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.