ST. PETERSBURG — The $580,000 question lingers — but that may not be the actual amount.
Mayor Bill Foster still can'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 ago, 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, Foster backtracked but didn't offer specifics about costs. He only reiterated his vow that taxpayers wouldn't be on the hook for the private party.
The issue resurfaced Thursday night during a public hearing on the budget when several residents complained about the city paying for the Republican bash.
Foster reiterated his pledge that taxpayers wouldn't pay. But hours later, when council members pushed him for specifics, Foster left people scratching their heads when he admitted that some security expenses might not be reimbursed.
Officers spent hours training to control large crowds during convention activities.
"Guess what? Cities don't get reimbursed for that," Foster said. "That's just what cities do."
City crews also spent hours cleaning and sprucing up streets, medians and parks in advance of the party — costs he said the city will have to bear. It's unclear exactly how much that cost, however, because those numbers are still being tallied.
Foster also acknowledged that police helped protect Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and their wives during another private event in St. Petersburg.
He said the "city may be reimbursed" for that, but that it is considered a "class two" security expense that may not be covered if there isn't leftover grant money.
Foster later pointed out that the city often has to shoulder the costs of protecting dignitaries. For example, he said the city can't send a bill to the White House for the 40 city police officers who helped protect President Barack Obama when he was here last weekend.
Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran said Friday that Foster's latest explanation only "opened the door for more questions."
"He has some explaining to do," she said. "I don't understand."
Council member Wengay Newton is perplexed that Foster and city staffers refuse to provide a breakdown of expenses, saying: "You almost have to laugh to keep from crying."
At one point Thursday, unsatisfied with the mayor's answers, council members pressed police Chief Chuck Harmon for specifics.
Harmon told council members they will eventually get details about how much it cost for non-security expenditures, like street cleaning.
But he offered few specifics on security, saying the information was classified.
Council member Steve Kornell scoffed at that notion, questioning how the council could allocate money without seeing the information.
"I'd like to see what the money was spent on," Kornell said. "It's a really difficult thing to explain to our public who is paying the fees."
Kornell said he plans to ask officials in Denver and Minneapolis, the sites of the political conventions in 2008, if such details were kept secret.
Newton, the most outspoken critic of city money being spent on convention events, lambasted the mayor and Harmon over their secrecy.
"Somebody knows where the money went," Newton said. "How did it get to that number? Just pull it out of the air."
Curran said she hopes to get more information about the expenses before the next budget hearing on Sept. 27.
"A lot of things were thrown together that make succotash and don't outline a clear direction going forward," she said.
More details are likely to come out in November when the council holds a meeting to "clean up" outstanding issues from the 2012 budget.
The $580,000 in question is part of a $5.2 million deficit this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The largest chunk comes from $2.3 million in estimated salary savings that did not occur. The city hired dozens of entry-level workers to jobs that administrators had hoped to avoid filling.
Other overruns include $1.5 million for starting the fiscal year in the red after borrowing from reserves last year and $446,000 for vehicle repairs and rising fuel prices.
A clerical error also underestimated the budgets for the City Council and the city's legal department by $359,000.
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.