Monday, August 20, 2018

Rick vs. Rick: St. Petersburg sewage crisis edition

ST. PETERSBURG — For nearly two years, the political stench of a sewage crisis has permeated City Hall.

The city's dilapidated sewer system has released up to 186 million gallons of waste into Tampa Bay plus local waterways and streets. The crisis started in August 2015 and hasn't stopped. A federal probe ended without criminal charges, but the state investigation is still ongoing. The city also faces an $810,000 fine on top of the tens of millions needed to fix the problems.

The blowback has also fired up the political rhetoric in this summer's mayoral election.

SUNSHINE CITY SHOWDOWN: Keep up with the Tampa Bay Times coverage of the St. Petersburg mayoral race.

It's Rick vs. Rick: Former mayor Rick Baker will challenge incumbent St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman (May 8, 2017)

Rick vs. Rick: Closing Albert Whitted sewage plant could impact St. Petersburg mayor's race (May 29, 2017)

In St. Petersburg's mayoral race, Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker rake in the big bucks, exceed $500,000 each (June 8, 2017)

Rick vs. Rick: Which St. Petersburg mayor paid the highest salaries at City Hall? (June 12, 2017)

Kriseman-Baker debate set for July 25 sponsored by the Times, Bay News 9, St. Pete College (June 20, 2017)

FOR MORE COVERAGE: Click here to read all the Times coverage of the mayor's race.

Former mayor Rick Baker rarely misses a chance to wedge the city's sewage woes into any stump speech or campaign statement.

Incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has spent months wading through the mess, has found others to blame: Baker and his predecessor, former mayor Bill Foster.

The current mayor has said both former mayors failed to adequately maintain the sewer system in the 14 years before he took office. Kriseman said he inherited their mess.

So how do their records compare? Which mayor spent the most on sewers, and which mayor spilled the most sewage?

The Tampa Bay Times decided to figure that out.

Who spilled the most?

One question has a clear answer: Under the Kriseman administration, the city says it has discharged nearly 186 million gallons of sewage over the last two summers. That dwarfs the 1.5 million gallons spilled over the eight years Baker spent in office from 2001-10.

That means Kriseman is responsible for roughly 124 times as much sewage dumped as Baker.

Kriseman acknowledged the sewage gap between his administration and the Baker administration. But, he said, Baker served during several dry years.

"Clearly, there is no comparison in the numbers," Kriseman said. "But we also had wet weather events that he did not experience. He went through significant periods of drought during his time as mayor.

"When you don't have significant rain events, and you're still having spills, you still need to take a look at your system."

However, there were significant rain events during Baker's tenure as mayor, including the 2004 storm season when four hurricanes struck Florida (but missed the Tampa Bay area). And at least one-seventh of his discharge totals were due to a contractor error at the Southwest plant in 2002.

Baker scoffed at Kriseman's position, saying the mayor's decision to move forward with the 2015 closure of the waterfront Albert Whitted sewage plant was behind much of Kriseman's troubles. The decision to close one of St. Petersburg's four sewage plants was actually made by a majority of the City Council in 2011, but when it was executed in 2015 it left the city with less capacity.

Said Baker: "He made a huge mistake and he has a dismal record and he's trying to do anything he can to push blame away from himself."

Who spent the most?

The Times also wanted to figure out how much had been spent by each mayor on the city's sewer system — not what was budgeted, but what was actually spent.

Instead of relying on budgets, the newspaper asked the city to provide actual expenditures including work done on sewage plants and pipes, lift stations and manholes.

Both mayors spent lots of money during some years, not so much on others.

Baker, who came into office in 2001 a few years after massive spills in the late 1990s, spent most of his tenure complying with a consent order from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The city was released from the order in 2009.

"We invested everything that was recommended to me by either my staff or FDEP under the consent order to get the system to the point where we didn't have spills," Baker said. "It was absolutely a success, what we did."

The city spend the first few years studying the most efficient way to fix the system, Baker said, then did it.

The highest year of sewer spending under Baker was 2005 when the city spent $38.5 million in inflation-adjusted dollars. By the end of his second term, when the city was free of state oversight, spending was less than $2 million a year.

Kriseman said the Baker administration didn't spend enough to keep the system ahead of the natural curve of deteriorating pipes.

"He had a consent order that had to be followed," Kriseman said. "Logic would seem to say, what was spent was enough to satisfy the consent order.

"But if it had been enough to bring the system up to future needs, we wouldn't have dealt with issues we dealt with."

Kriseman's sewer spending started out low, with just about $3.5 million in 2014, a budget year he shared with Foster. City spending under his tenure didn't ramp up until the spills began in 2015.

Now, the city is in the midst of a $304 million sewer system fix, much of which is mandated by another pending state consent order. The city has spent $57 million so far this year — a high for both the Baker and Kriseman years.

To blame or not to blame?

Kriseman points to that spending as evidence that he is investing enough to keep the city's sewers operating safely for years to come. And, the mayor said, he wants to make clear that he's not interested in past mistakes, just fixing the current problems.

"This is not a blame game, we don't have time to place blame," he said. "We're trying to make progress."

Baker said Kriseman's desire to not place blame for the problem shows that he's not taking responsibility for his administration's mistakes:

"This attitude reflects Kriseman's leadership style — spend two years blaming the weather, city employees and past administrations, never take responsibility for closing Albert Whitted in 2015 and dumping 200 million gallons of sewage and now crying foul when he's held accountable."

Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727)893-8459. [email protected]

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