ST. PETERSBURG — After complaints about secret stashes of money squirreled away in the city's budget, officials this week said they had identified more than $4 million tied up in old capital improvement projects that isn't needed.
When those accounts are closed, the money will be freed for other uses. Of that, $3 million already has been committed to other projects, $900,000 can be used for other capital projects, and $200,000 could be transferred into the city's general fund to be used for anything, according to a memo prepared by budget director Tom Greene.
The analysis is the first concrete glimpse into an unwieldy internal accounting system that basically gave city staffers control over whether funds were available for projects.
"People got used to leaving things open that they would not close until they had another project they wanted to do — and that's not really their job," said council member Karl Nurse. "The combination of stashing untold amounts of money away at the same time we're telling people we can't afford basic services, to me, it's hide the ball."
Mayor Rick Kriseman called the report a first step toward getting a tighter grip on the hundreds of capital projects on the books.
"Clearly what we've discovered is a process that isn't nearly as transparent and easy to understand as I would like it to be," Kriseman said Thursday. "If it's difficult for those of us in administration, in the mayor's office, in City Council, to know where the money is, how can we expect the public to?"
The $1 million that Greene and his staff identified as available will be freed up when officials close dozens of capital improvement projects that until now have been in the "active" column of city records, even as work on many was completed years ago.
Greene and his staff were asked to examine the city's 453 active capital projects worth a combined $93.5 million and decide which could be closed. They found 80 projects, worth a combined $4.051 million.
The bulk of that — roughly $3.1 million — already has been dedicated to new projects slated for this year or next.
For example, last week the council agreed to use $57,000 leftover from a capital project for kitchen upgrades at the Mahaffey Theater for dressing room renovations.
The capital review was sparked in part by repeated requests by Nurse, who for years has been asking for an accounting of the unused capital funds.
Greene sent an April 16 memo to council members that simply listed all the projects — raising more questions.
Nurse, in particular, was concerned about the number of completed projects still considered "open" — and the ease at which city staff shifted money from project to project with minimal council input.
Separately, Kriseman and his administration were trying to understand the capital project close-out procedure. But no one could explain how many projects should be closed, or how much money was available.
"The good news is that by shining a light on this it is forcing us to look closely at these open projects," Nurse said Thursday.
Greene said he is working on a more detailed chart that will track the funding. He said his staff has been working diligently to close old projects.
Kriseman said Greene's memo is the first part of a plan to bring more accountability and transparency to city spending.
"The first step was just to get a handle on what we had," he said. "Because the system wasn't transparent, the public was given an impressions of resources that appear to be available but weren't. … We have no one to blame but ourselves. We're going to fix it."
Nurse said he still is seeking clarification on how some projects fell into the cracks.
For example, $200,000 now available stems from a second phase of renovations at the old Jordan Park Elementary School. Nurse said he and other council members didn't even know about a second phase until they recently were asked to approve a construction contract. Council members had assumed the project was closed after the initial work was done in 2009.
For Nurse, it comes down to who runs the city. When council members want to get a project considered, they have to go through several steps, he said. Staff members seem to get projects funded with ease.
"It becomes about never telling City Council that any money exists until you decide how you want to spend it," he said, "and then you give it to them under a deadline … and it works."