ST. PETE BEACH — Commissioners angrily spent another $56,000 Tuesday for legal bills that stem from ongoing disputes over the city's comprehensive plan.
More than half — $35,000 — was added to the city's 2010-11 budget to cover what may be another banner year of lawsuits and appeals. The rest, about $21,000, covered personal legal bills for one of their own, Commissioner Beverly Garnett, who was sued by former Vice Mayor Harry Metz.
Mayor Mike Finnerty said there's a "big black cloud over the city" in referring to the apparent eagerness by residents to sue the city. Other commissioners agreed.
"It is a classic example of harassment and intimidation," said Commissioner Marvin Shavlan.
"I am positive our budget won't be enough, and I can think of no better thing to do than to defend the city," Vice Mayor Jim Parent said.
Actual legal spending this past fiscal year reached nearly $400,000, double what was originally budgeted, according to City Manager Mike Bonfield.
That money could have lowered property taxes by nearly 0.2 mills; paid for the entire commission and city clerk budgets; covered nearly three-quarters of the public library's budget; doubled spending on capital projects; or tripled the planned 2 percent pay increase for all employees.
A trial started last week over the legality of the 2008 referendum election that changed the city's comprehensive plan. Several other lawsuits on the same issue are either pending or expected to be appealed.
The city also faces two new legal actions, as well as a number of pending motions for court-ordered sanctions.