ST. PETERSBURG — When it comes to giving tax credits to powerful special interests, the City Council almost reached its limit Thursday.
Council members considered three tax breaks worth nearly $600,000 that were recommended by Mayor Bill Foster.
It took them less than five minutes to approve two of the credits — one for $187,000, the other for $297,500 — for two unidentified companies that promise to locate here and create jobs. Under Florida law, the names of the companies can be kept confidential until the project is complete.
But the council initially balked at giving the Salvador Dali Museum a $100,000 break on paying transportation improvements for its new facility on the downtown waterfront. For 90 minutes, most of the council members expressed serious misgivings about the break, especially on a day in which they were giving final approval to giving the museum $2.5 million to finish construction on its new building.
"My attitude is, enough is enough," said council member Jeff Danner. "We can't keep giving them a break."
In the end, however, council members Bill Dudley, Jim Kennedy, Steve Kornell, Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse approved the fee waiver.
"I feel like we're at the point of no return," Dudley said. "As ticked off as I am, by not giving them what they want now we're handing them the banana split without the cherry on top."
Danner and council Vice Chairman Herb Polson voted against the gift. Danner pointed out that the $2.5 million the council agreed to give the museum in August came out of an account designated for downtown pedestrian improvements. He objected to the added $100,000 break on the $277,000 the museum owed in transportation impact fees, which are paid by new development to absorb the impact on roads.
"If we waive the fees, then we'll have to pay it because we're still going to need crosswalks and curb cuts," Danner said. "We are anticipating parking problems in that area, so where's the money going to come from?"
In August, the City Council agreed to the $2.5 million gift by a vote of 7-1, with only Polson voting against it. The museum was $5 million short of the $36 million needed for its new waterfront home. Pinellas County also will give the museum $2.5 million or the city will rescind its money.
Foster and city officials said the museum overlooked bond fees that had to be subtracted from the city's gift, so it was more like a $2.3 million contribution. Many council members didn't buy that explanation.
"You can't get this old dog to believe that for a second," Polson said. "This is an unreasonable request. It's pulling back a rubber band to see how far it will go."
"It feels like this is costing us $100,000 to give them $2.5 million," Kennedy said.
It was the museum's status as one of the city's biggest draws that Foster and the majority of council members said was the reason why they reluctantly approved the final $100,00 credit.
"This has been extremely frustrating, and I regret we've been put in this situation," Foster said. "But the Dali attracts 200,000 visitors a year. It's heads in beds. It's not uncommon to give tax incentives to create jobs or get them to come here."
That line of thinking is why they endorsed the two other credits that were designed to create jobs.
An unnamed air conditioning manufacturer is negotiating to open in Midtown and provide 350 full time jobs by December 2013 with an average annual salary of at least $44,388. It's considered a "green" technology because it won't use Freon, which damages the ozone.
Without the tax break, the company is considering opening in other Florida locales, said Mario Farias, a spokesman for the unnamed company.
Council members approved $187,000 in a tax reimbursement for a company that says it will create 220 full time jobs by 2012.
"Besides the good jobs, which is evident, this is a tax generator," Nurse said. "I'm happy to have played a small role in this."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.