ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster has boasted about how great the city looked last month when thousands of visitors invaded during the Republican National Convention.
To beautify the city, employees spent hundreds of hours cleaning streets, hanging banners on light poles and spreading mulch to improve flower beds in intersections.
As a reward for a job well done, Foster gave 70 top staffers 16 hours of paid time off.
"While it can never be enough, I wanted to thank you personally with a small token of administrative leave," Foster wrote this week in a memo to managers, who he said spent countless hours "planning, preparing and executing" to keep everyone safe even as Hurricane Isaac roared in the Gulf of Mexico.
On Thursday, City Administrator Tish Elston said the 1,120 hours of total paid time won't cost taxpayers because the employees, most of them managers, are salaried.
She said the reward wasn't given to front-line workers because they earned overtime for their work. She also said it's likely many of the 70 employees will be too busy to use the extra leave and that they won't be allowed to cash in the hours for money.
"It's a morale booster," she said.
Rick Smith, chief of staff for the Florida Public Services Union, which represents 1,200 city workers, disagreed that the bonus time comes at no cost to the city.
"It's two days off with pay," he said.
Smith doesn't want to cause friction between managers and workers, but he said managers are expected to work longer hours than the rank and file. His union workers have not had raises in four years.
"These people make $100,000 a year," Smith said about managers. "All workers in St. Pete should get a raise. It shouldn't just rise to the top."
Foster defended his action and reiterated that the workers who got paid time off did not get overtime like the front-line workers for their work for the convention and storm. Many, he said, worked 12- to 16-hour days.
"I am trying to run a business here," Foster said. "You take care of your employees.
The City Council learned of Foster's gift from the Tampa Bay Times.
"Oh my God," said Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran.
She said her reaction wasn't about whether the employees deserved a bonus. It was in response to the mayor's need to be more "transparent" on how much the city spent on convention-related activities.
"The expenses are obviously greater than what we're being told. I want a full accounting of all the costs," she said.
Curran pointed to last week's budget hearing where Foster still couldn't say how much was spent to prepare, secure and clean up the city after an Aug. 26 welcome party at Tropicana Field for the Republican National Convention.
Two weeks earlier, Foster included an estimated $580,000 in convention-related expenses in a memo sent to the City Council. This amount was on top of $1 million in security expenses expected to be reimbursed by Tampa from a federal grant.
A day later, he reiterated his vow that taxpayers wouldn't be on the hook for the private party, but later seemed to backtrack when council members pressed him for specifics.
Foster said that some security expenses might not be reimbursed for protecting dignitaries and for training police to control large crowds. He said staff still was tallying up the total staff time that went into the convention.
The council won't learn the actual costs until a November meeting to "clean up" the 2012 budget.
Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.