Safety Harbor officials question former mayor's city debt

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for any elected official to get into debt to the city they’re elected to represent,” Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub, left, said without making specific reference to former mayor and possible election rival Andy Steingold.

Times files

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for any elected official to get into debt to the city they’re elected to represent,” Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub, left, said without making specific reference to former mayor and possible election rival Andy Steingold.

SAFETY HARBOR — Former Mayor Andy Steingold often owed the city thousands of dollars while he was in office, carrying a running tab on his health insurance premiums until he finished his term in January and paid the full bill.

Steingold, whose wife battled cancer when he was in office, quietly negotiated with the city each month to make partial payments and keep his family's insurance from lapsing.

Now, nearly a year after Steingold left office, an anonymous letter writer wanted the issue to get some attention.

"It is my strong opinion that this kind of behavior represents an abuse of power and fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers and should be stopped immediately," said an unsigned Sept. 20 letter, addressed to the attention of city auditors. "We should have a policy in place to keep city officials from using the city as their own interest-free credit card and to prevent this kind of misconduct from happening in the future."

City Manager Matt Spoor said during a Monday night audit committee meeting that the city did not make a special exception for Steingold. He said the city often works with retired employees who are late on their health insurance premiums and residents who are late on their utility payments.

The city pays a portion of the premiums for current employees, but commissioners and retirees can buy into city health insurance only if they pay 100 percent of the premiums.

At the auditors' recommendation, Spoor said the city would draft a policy for handling late payments and put it before commissioners.

Steingold, a lawyer in private practice, is the only commissioner in recent history to buy into the city's medical insurance.

The city's case-by-case approach hasn't caused problems before, Spoor said, but now it's clear a policy is needed.

Steingold carried a balance with the city from December 2008 to January 2013, with his debt peaking at about $4,000 in late 2011.

Steingold did not attend the meeting or respond to phone calls from the Tampa Bay Times.

Mayor Joe Ayoub, who may face Steingold during the 2014 mayor's race, blasted the former mayor Monday even as he avoided mentioning him by name.

"I don't think it's appropriate for any elected official to get into debt to the city they're elected to represent," he said. "I don't think that's proper. I think it in essence represents a loan — and an interest-free loan for that matter."

Furthermore, Ayoub continued, the city manager and other employees shouldn't be in a position where they have to press elected officials (who are their bosses) for payment.

Commissioners Nina Bandoni, Cliff Merz, Richard Blake and Nancy Besore, sitting as the city audit committee, seemed more forgiving of the situation, with Besore suggesting the anonymous letter was motivated by politics rather than the city's financial best interest.

"I am totally in agreement that going forward it's a good idea to have a policy," she said. "But I think the situation itself was exaggerated."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com or 727-445-4155.

>>fast facts

Safety Harbor election moved to March

City commissioners unanimously agreed to move Safety Harbor's election from November to March, piggybacking on the special election for the seat left vacant by the Oct. 18 death of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

The decision moves Safety Harbor's election back to its original date and reverses a July vote to move it to November that ignited community controversy over whether it was appropriate for commissioners to extend their own terms — even if it saves the city $20,000.

Commissioners who voted initially to move the election said they did so because they wanted to increase voter turnout and save city money by sharing costs with the county for things like poll workers and advertising.

Now the city can seize the same benefits during the March 11 special election, commissioners said.

Safety Harbor officials question former mayor's city debt 11/05/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 5, 2013 6:41pm]

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