Monday, July 23, 2018
Politics

PolitiFact Florida: Was St. Pete the state's best maintained large sewer system in 2007?

Former Mayor Rick Baker says his management of St. Petersburg's sewage system was so good, it earned statewide recognition.

Baker plucked a city achievement from his two terms as proof of his management prowess compared with Mayor Rick Kriseman, his main opponent in the Aug. 29 primary election.

"Who do you trust to fix this mess?" Baker asked in a Facebook post on July 28. "A man who caused the mess and is tens of millions of dollars over budget on the pier, police station and public relations staff? Or a mayor who made St. Petersburg the state's best maintained large sewer system in 2007?"

St. Petersburg did nab its first Wastewater Collection System Award in 2007 under Baker.

But his claim goes further to say St. Petersburg was the state's best sewer system — which isn't entirely true, because only utilities that applied were considered, and not every utility in the state applied. Further, Baker left out the backstory about why the city was pouring so many resources into the sewers at the time.

In an interview with PolitiFact Florida, Baker emphasized he has been more precise with his word choice in other instances touting this accomplishment, saying the city was "named" the best maintained large sewer system. Still, we wanted to take a look at this specific claim.

The award came from the Florida Water Environment Association, a nonprofit group that recognizes utilities for significant accomplishments related to the operation and maintenance of wastewater collection systems among other things.

Lane Longley, manager of St. Petersburg's Wastewater Collection Division, submitted the 2007 application. Longley said the city started adopting maintenance strategies to prevent spills rather than wait for problems to happen on their own, and those steps reduced the number and magnitude of sanitary sewer overflows from 1999 to 2007.

But the award does not reflect a real contest among Florida cities. For one thing, not every city applies for the award.

The city of Tampa stopped applying for the FWEA awards decades ago. A spokeswoman for the city of Orlando couldn't point to any specific awards the city had won or applied for. And a spokeswoman with the city of Jacksonville said the city hasn't won or applied for any awards.

What's more, these cities can point to other awards. Orlando won recognition from the Water Environment Federation, an FWEA sister organization.

Another major issue with Baker's claim: St. Petersburg made a lot of the improvements because it was under Florida Department of Environmental Protection consent orders that required changes be made to the sewer system. One order started in 2000 and the other started in 2002. Both went on to cover Baker's entire tenure.

After massive spills in the late 1990s, St. Petersburg entered into its first consent order. A spokeswoman for the FDEP said it covered the city's four facilities for unauthorized discharges and included corrective actions pertaining to the collection system and the facilities to address the discharges. The second consent order covered violations and discharges only from the Albert Whitted Facility.

In both cases, the state agency assessed civil penalties against the city, but decided to implement programs for environmental enhancement, education and restoration in lieu of payment.

Baker acknowledged the city was ordered to improve, but said the improvements were significant nonetheless.

"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 told the Tampa Bay Times on June 24. "It was absolutely a success, what we did."

According to the Times, 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, spending had dropped to less than $2 million a year.

Along the way, the city charted its progress online. The original goal was to rehabilitate 97,680 linear feet of pipes. By September 2008, a little under 160,000 linear feet of pipes had been rehabilitated, according to the city document.

Still, the Baker years have not escaped criticism when it comes to sewers.

Investigators have traced some of the blame for the city's sewage woes to the city's decision to close and not reopen the Albert Whitted treatment plant in 2015. That move was approved by the city council in 2011 and carried out under Kriseman. Taking the plant offline reduced capacity and led to the release of millions of gallons of sewage into the Tampa and Boca Ciega bays after major storms in 2015 and 2016.

But a draft report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also places much of the blame for the sewage spills on the Kriseman administration, as well as on the past two decades of city leadership, which includes the Baker administration from 2001-10.

The report said the city's many sewage problems were not adequately repaired in the past.

We rate the claim Half True.

Times senior news news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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