ST. PETE BEACH — In a marathon meeting Tuesday that ended only minutes before midnight, the newly elected commission reluctantly spent more than $2 million for installation of new equipment for the city's aging sewer system.
But even before making that decision, the commission directed the city administration to prepare for a special workshop in May to review why the sewer system had deteriorated so badly and how the city could avoid such massive spending in the future.
New Mayor Maria Lowe set the tone for the nearly six-hour meeting when she repeatedly called for audience participation in a two-hour debate over the meeting's agenda and how future meetings would be conducted.
It was clear throughout the meeting that Lowe and council members Dr. Terri Finnerty and Melinda Pletcher want more citizen participation. Audience comments will now open and close meeting agendas.
Pletcher initially called for any decisions on spending more money on the sewer system be delayed until the commission could hold a workshop to review the history of the sewer system issues.
"I got calls from people saying it is a lot of money and asking questions I couldn't answer. It would be nice to give everybody more information," Pletcher said.
"How did we get to the point that the system was so flawed?" asked Lowe, calling for a "cradle to the grave" review of the system's history.
Veteran Commissioner Jim Parent and newly elected Commissioner Gregory Premer objected to delaying authorizing the sewer system repairs and repeatedly called for ratification of spending decisions made by the prior commission.
"We have talked about this (sewer system) for about three years. We have gone through budgets and presentations and it happens all the time that decisions fall over to the next commission.," said Parent. "These pumps are broke, they need to be fixed and we can't get parts anymore."
Premer called for the commission to "move forward," noting that "it is pretty obvious all the homework has been done."
Administration officials were surprised about the move to delay sewer system fixes.
"The staff has been working on this for years and years," said Steve Hallock, director of public services. "It is a bit concerning when we get to this point to see brakes put on."
Hallock explained the city had failed for years to properly maintain the system and only began to set money aside to pay for infrastructure upgrades a few years ago.
"When I first started, there was no enterprise fund and we were in debt $1 million," Hallock said.
He praised previous commissions and City Manager Mike Bonfield for increasing sewer fees to accumulate a reserve fund for sewer repairs.
But when the sewer system deterioration accelerated recently, the city was forced to spend down the sewer system reserves earlier than anticipated — and even threw in more than $300,000 in general fund money to make up the difference needed.
"I waited too long on the master pump station. I don't want to wait again and have another emergency situation," Hallock said, adding "Honestly, I would not be comfortable waiting. You have got to do it."
Untreated sewage repeatedly spewed onto some city streets in the fall after the two pumps at the city's master pump station failed. The state Department of Environment Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency investigated the spills.
"It's time to write the check, isn't it?" Premer said.
After more than an hour debate, the commission unanimously decided to authorize the sewer system equipment repairs.