Tuesday, November 21, 2017
News Roundup

St. Petersburg council member irked by city's secret money pots

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ST. PETERSBURG — It has been nearly three years since city leaders gathered at Lake Maggiore to celebrate the opening of Fire Station No. 8.

Yet, according to city documents, the station is still classified as an "open and active" capital improvement project — leaving $149,000 left over from the project in limbo.

Perhaps more perplexing is that the practice doesn't seem that unusual.

City Council members have been asking for months to see a comprehensive accounting of the city's ongoing capital improvement projects.

Budget director Tom Greene recently delivered the list, but it only sparked more questions — and consternation. Greene listed 453 "open and active" projects as of March 31, with $93.5 million yet to be spent.

But it appears that many — like the fire station — have been completed, leading some to wonder why hundreds of thousands of dollars remain tied up when it could be used elsewhere.

"During all this time, we're told there is no money, no money, no money, no money . . . and we cut, cut, cut, everywhere you look," said council member Karl Nurse, who fired off an email Tuesday, demanding answers. "Yet apparently there's a whole series of pots of money socked away in old projects."

Mayor Rick Kriseman and his administration also want answers.

"We have been working very closely with Tom Greene and his staff," said Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, who plans to meet with Greene this week. "He's aware we're wanting to resolve this as soon as possible."

At this point, it's not clear how many old projects should have been closed by now.

On his own, Nurse found about 30 projects he had questions about, including:

• Renovations to the old Jordan Park Elementary School building on Ninth Avenue S, which were done in 2009 with $400,000 still in the account.

• Allocations for an "emergency dredging small boat" project, which received $50,000 each of the last seven years with little actually spent.

• Other leftover money from projects include parking lot improvements at the Coliseum ($32,000), a bridge on Fourth Street S ($206,000), renovations to another fire station ($28,500) and citywide energy upgrades ($24,800) completed years ago.

Nurse said he has been asking for such a list for five years — and as recently as about 10 days ago.

"It was always described as an incredibly complicated process," he said. "What's changed? A new administration."

The topic surfaced again last year when staff members shifted money from completed projects to find more money for a new police station.

A similar tactic was used this year when Kriseman took office and hired several high-level staffers. To help pay their salaries, staff tapped $250,000 from an old project related to an annexation — prompting council members to ask how many such projects exist with available funds.

"There's obviously not $93 million available," Nurse said. "But there clearly is money that's been put in various corners that we never know exists until the staffer decided they want to spend it. That's not kosher."

Greene said the city does monitor the projects and regularly closes them. His office also has been giving council a quarterly update on closed projects.

Tomalin said the new administration had many of the same questions as the council about how projects are budgeted and closed, so they too asked for an accounting earlier this year.

"There's no general explanation that applies to the entire list," she said. "It's not as simple as looking at the date and today's date and making an assumption it should be closed.

"Apparently there are additional variables."

For example, while the main portion of the Jordan Park renovations was finished several years ago, a new phase is about to begin. But that work, on some classroom space, is projected to cost $190,000 — far short of the $400,000 in the fund, said city architect Raul Quintana.

It's unclear why the remaining $210,000 was not released for other uses.

Sometimes, officials said, they let multiple years of appropriations build up to save for a major purchase.

Other projects, like the fire station and Coliseum parking upgrades, could probably be closed out, Quintana said.

The council is expected to discuss capital improvements next month when the group gets its next update on closed projects.

"The good news is that we finally put all the cards on the table," Nurse said. "At the very least, we'll get the clutter cleaned up and be able to make decisions that are rational. That's kind of our job."

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