ST. PETERSBURG — The battle of the two Ricks plunged into the fiscal nitty-gritty Tuesday as Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker tussled over spending.
Baker repeatedly criticized Kriseman for borrowing $7.6 million from the city's reserves to balance this year's budget.
"That is a bad omen moving forward," Baker said, adding later that Kriseman's plan involved paying back the money through a bond issue early next year.
"He's going to borrow money to repay that money," Baker said.
The mayor responded that the borrowing was a short-term fix that would be repaid quickly. The city used the money to speed up repairs on the city's beleaguered sewer system before the rainy season began. The city has avoided major spills this year and will soon have an extra 40 million gallons of treatment capacity, Kriseman said.
He added that Baker had spent reserves in 2009 and never replenished them, a charge that Baker didn't refute.
"At least as far as borrowing from reserves, at least we have a plan in place to pay that money back. I would much rather have taken the money out now and gotten the work done, then delayed the work that we needed to do to try and get ready for this storm season, which we've done very well through because we got the work done," Kriseman said.
The city's two-year sewer crisis, during which the city released about 200 million gallons of gallons of sewage into area waterways, has resulted in a $326 million consent decree with the state and a big, although as yet undetermined, increase in utility rates in January.
Kriseman and Baker also clashed Tuesday over the budgets for a new police headquarters and to replace the pier. The mayor said the spending was within budget. Baker said amending the budgets of the big-ticket projects by tens of millions wasn't fiscally sound.
"You are going to pay for that, folks," Baker told a crowd of a several dozen people at the St. Petersburg Community Church in Disston Heights. The forum, organized by the Disston Heights Neighborhood Association, was moderated by Mitch Perry, a reporter for the website floridapolitics.com.
While Baker tried to paint Kriseman as a reckless spender, the mayor countered with a portrait of a city that was safer and more inclusive than in Baker's two terms as mayor between 2001 and 2010.
"I believe St. Pete is a better and safer city than it was four years ago. I believe it is a better and safer city than it was 10 years ago," Kriseman said, citing lower crime and poverty rates under his administration.
Kriseman, as he has throughout the campaign, repeatedly praised Police Chief Tony Holloway, who he said was responsible for building community trust and reducing crime. He promised to retain Holloway if reelected. Baker has said he likes Holloway, but hasn't publicly committed to keeping the chief.
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Baker and Kriseman also clashed over climate change. Kriseman's campaign has run TV ads charging Baker denies the science behind climate change. On Tuesday, Kriseman continued the attack.
"You cannot plan for the future if you do not believe in the science of climate change," Kriseman said.
Baker retorted that the ads were reflective of the "depth of deception" in Kriseman's campaign. He said his views on climate change are similar to those of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, an ally of Kriseman.
"I do believe in climate change. Man has had an impact. I don't know what level that impact has been," Baker said.
The two Ricks also battled over apprenticeship programs, the sewage crisis and homelessness, but city spending dominated the 55 minute debate.
"I am very concerned about the spending, spending, spending going on in City Hall right now," Baker said. "I just think we need to be more prudent in our fiscal house, get that in order."
Kriseman said Baker's criticism of his 2015 decision to carry out the closure of the waterfront Albert Whitted sewage plant reflected Baker's reckless spending ideas.
To reopen Albert Whitted — as Baker wants to do— would cost more and take more time than the work already nearly complete at the city's Southwest and Northwest sewer plants, the mayor said.
"Putting (Albert Whitted) back online is fiscally irresponsible," Kriseman said.