Wednesday, January 17, 2018
News Roundup

St. Pete officials planning for future capital projects while investigating status of old ones

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman has instructed city departments to hurry up and determine whether old and completed capital improvement projects can be officially closed out, potentially freeing up unused funds for other things.

His office also is working with staffers to create more transparent and comprehensive budgeting and management of capital projects. Last week, the mayor and City Council learned that in at least some cases, projects that have been long finished were still being classified as "open," which sparked heated debate.

The practice has irked some council members, who in the past had asked for an accounting of all such projects.

"The businessman in me just wants to run from the room when we just have money sitting like that," said council member Karl Nurse, who feels it doesn't make sense for the city to sock away money that could be earning interest or be used for other pressing projects. "It's not efficient. It's not financially prudent. I don't think it's honest."

Administration officials addressed the issue Tuesday at the start of a three-hour workshop to review Kriseman's capital improvement plan for the next five years.

"We look at this absolutely as a project management issue going forward," Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin told council members. "All of the questions you are asking, we share a concern and commitment to get to a place where this stuff is clear."

During the workshop, the council did not get an answer about how much of an estimated $93 million worth of existing active projects could be closed or redirected. City staffers are still trying to determine that, budget director Tom Greene said.

But Greene was able to give the council a detailed look at what projects Kriseman has in mind for the next several years. Kriseman wants to spend $68.4 million on projects for fiscal year 2015 and $337.2 million over the next five years.

Several of next year's projects fall in line with issues the mayor has said are priorities.

For example, there is $350,000 for housing improvements in the city's southern neighborhoods, $50,000 for a Skyway Marina District restaurant incentive and $350,000 for neighborhood projects and grants. No new projects are planned for the golf courses or the port, but other facilities like the Coliseum and Mahaffey Theater are likely to get money for upgrades or maintenance.

Council member Charlie Gerdes praised the mayor for including the neighborhood funds, but said he was disappointed there is currently no money planned for improvements at Al Lang Stadium.

"We just can't wait much longer," he said.

Other council members had concerns about the plan to designate more funds for parking meter expansion, after staff members admitted there are no current plans to add more meters. They also asked if it was necessary to spend the majority of the city's share of Penny for Pinellas public safety capital funds on a new police station.

Both issues are likely to be addressed later, officials said.

The presentation the council heard Tuesday is just a snapshot of what Kriseman has in mind for the capital improvement portion of next year's budget. Kriseman must submit his official budget this summer to the council for approval.

"When he submits his final budget in July, it may look different," Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said. "In fact, there may be some changes based even on what council said today."

City staffers are expected to return to the council with information about the 453 existing open projects that sparked the controversy last week. A date for that meeting has not yet been set.

Going forward, Greene said, the council will get quarterly reports on the status of open projects, in addition to the one they already receive on closed projects.

"To me, it's clearly a systems process that broke down," council member Darden Rice said. "I think the most important thing is how we look forward. It's clear to me the new administration is grappling with this as much as the council."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8643 or on Twitter @cornandpotatoes.

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