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Pinellas County's top two politicians have strained relations

One is the strong mayor of Pinellas County's biggest city. The other is the county's head honcho.

In an age of dwindling finances, no two local officials are more critical in solving a number of pressing problems than St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala.

So it's worth noting that not even two months into Foster's term, the two are barely speaking.

Foster told an audience this week that he would avoid LaSala and instead go to county commissioners when he needs to work out issues between the city and Pinellas.

LaSala was equally pointed during a Thursday meeting with the St. Petersburg Times' editorial board.

"There really isn't anything for me to do. The only thing I can say is, even at the local level, we do need statesmen," LaSala said.

The result is a public snit between the two most powerful officials in Pinellas, despite recent attempts to temper the tense history between the city and county.

The dispute started over the city's request to take an early withdrawal from $50 million in special property tax money earmarked to remake the Pier. As a stipulation, LaSala wanted the county to approve how the money is used every five years.

Foster called LaSala's proposal hogwash, and decided against seeking the money in advance, saying the city could wait until 2012. He also suggested that LaSala might "really want to control everything."

Foster took the dispute up a notch Tuesday, criticizing LaSala's attitude toward the city during an appearance at the Suncoast Tiger Bay political club. After several jokes about the men's strained relationship, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch asked Foster what could be done to improve the relationship between the county and the city.

The best results, Foster said, will come from his relationships with commissioners, rather than LaSala.

"I'm not sure your administrator will ever get" the fact that the "250,000 people I represent are residents of Pinellas County," Foster said.

Shortly before those words, LaSala had chatted with Welch as the commissioner drove to the event. LaSala mentioned to Welch that he would be interested in meeting Foster for coffee "if he wanted to hit the reset button."

Welch said he was baffled by the mayor's response and didn't get the chance to pass along the "reset button" offer.

On Thursday, LaSala defended his oversight request because the financing involves shifting tax revenue that normally would go to the county. Already, any changes in such projects supported by the funding would require commission approval.

LaSala said the county didn't have any quibbles with how the city was running the Pier project.

Further, he said, city officials under then-Mayor Rick Baker seemed to agree with the proposals until about Jan. 20, when Foster voiced his objection.

The review he's asking for is similar to other increment financing programs in the county, he said.

St. Petersburg City Administrator Tish Elston said the city initially did agree with the county's proposal, but talks broke down over the five-year review requirement. "That was a deal breaker."

The rejection was not driven by the mayor, she said, adding that she did not know why LaSala thought otherwise.

"Unfortunately, Bob does tend to personalize things," she said. "I've talked to him about that."

Of the 10 tax financing districts, St. Petersburg would be the only one with a required five-year review, said county planning director Brian Smith said. A Largo district has a 15-year review, though Smith said the county is trying to add more reviews as proposed changes to projects come up.

"We're not going to be asking for something for St. Pete that we wouldn't for Dunedin," Smith said.

Though surprised at Foster's reaction, LaSala brushed aside the dispute as "a tempest in a teapot."

But the give and take has the potential to boil over into serious disputes. The city and county continue to fight over emergency medical service spending, annexations and other issues.

Many had hoped the departures of Baker and former County Administrator Steve Spratt would improve relations between the two governments.

But some county officials fretted about Foster's arrival before he was elected, recalling testy exchanges in 2007 over cities' annexation powers.

After Foster's election, the men had lunch at Bascom's Chop House on Ulmerton Road, halfway between the mayor's office and LaSala's perch atop the Clearwater courthouse. It was unmemorable, LaSala said.

Foster recalled it differently.

"We had a great time," Foster said. "We had a great dialogue, we said the past is the past. It was a great lunch."

Then two five-minute phone calls over the Pier created a fissure.

"It boggles the mind," Foster said. "I fully expected Bob to work this out. My amazement is how easy it was to have Bob say he wasn't going to help us out. I thought we had the beginning of a beautiful relationship."

But if he can't work it out with LaSala, Foster said he has friends on the commission, singling out Welch in particular as an ally.

"I just think elected officials will have better relations with each other," Foster said. "That's because elected officials are directly accountable to the public."

But Welch, who supports LaSala's approach, has a different take: "He needs to be have a good relationship with the administrator as well as the county commissioners."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County's top two politicians have strained relations 02/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 1, 2010 3:08pm]
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