Car perk reveals serious disconnect between St. Petersburg leaders and the people they serve

A new ramp leading to the top of the Fort De Soto fort lets people with mobility issues soak up the stellar view. Stairs also lead to the observation areas. 

SANDRA J. GADSDEN | Times

A new ramp leading to the top of the Fort De Soto fort lets people with mobility issues soak up the stellar view. Stairs also lead to the observation areas. 

When is someone in St. Petersburg going to step up and show real leadership?

Taxpayers here can no longer afford to sit back as their city government imposes new fees on them while protecting the perks that workers in other industries lost years ago.

Since initially defending the car allowance perk, Mayor Bill Foster has had a change of heart — sort of. He'll delay a final decision until next year, in time for the 2013 fiscal budget. Right. Let the staff know — a year in advance — that they must prove the car allowance is needed.

This perk, which has been on the books for 22 years, costs taxpayers $201,852 annually. It is given to 141 administrators, directors and managers.

It survived Foster's 2012 budget, but 41 full-time and 18 part-time positions didn't fare as well. And while many taxpayers struggle to make ends meet, the city concocts a stew of more fees for constituents who live or do business here. Nice.

Pool and library hours are being reduced. Recreation fees are increasing, and the city will bring in more money by charging more for fire code inspections, adding red-light cameras and installing more parking meters.

Tim Finch, who as city budget and management director charts the course for the 2012 fiscal budget, earns the Weasel of the Week Award. Finch, who defended the perk, receives $135 a month for his car allowance, or $1,620 a year on top of his $118,013 salary. That's not fiscally responsible.

Several City Council members have grumbled about the car allowances, but their whining would seem more genuine if they gave up a perk or two as well. They get a monthly allowance on top of their salaries, and while it isn't called a "car allowance," it is a perk. The other perk is the pension they approved for themselves in 2003 for their part-time city work.

In tough times, tough decisions must be made. The car allowance would be easier to swallow if it was a tough decision. For Foster and Finch to waffle on this no-brainer issue shows there is a serious disconnect between city leaders and the people they serve.

Here's a dose of reality for you: Unemployment in Pinellas County is 10.6 percent. Thus far this year, there have been 2,657 foreclosures in Pinellas. It stands to reason that many of those are in St. Petersburg. Last year that number was a staggering 10,946.

While the mayor is handing out perks for the annual Christmas in July, many city residents are cutting expenses by riding the bus to work. According to figures from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, ridership hit an all-time record with 13.1 million rides for fiscal year 2009-10.

If you must have perks, consider bus passes for the whole lot.

• • •

On a much brighter note, the piles of sand collecting at the base of the old fort this year are gone.

Native vegetation has taken root as workers put the finishing touches on the fort at Fort De Soto Park. It reopened to the public Wednesday.

The fort closed in October. The $1.1 million restoration project began in November and was supposed to end in March. But a series of missteps, coupled with torrential rains, slowed the job.

Workers from Caladesi Construction had to regroup after their initial efforts washed away with the sand. Now, four months later, the project appears complete.

The most noticeable additions are the new ramp and shiny railing atop the fort that put it in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The ramp on the fort's south end and the new stairway on the north end lead to observation areas atop the historic structure. There, visitors are treated to stunning views of one of the best beaches in America.

The completion of the project is a relief for Jim Wilson, park supervisor at Fort De Soto since 1988.

"We did have some erosion issues, which was why there was a delay," said Wilson. "The resolution was to pin some Bahia sod throughout to hold things into place."

Last week, after the initial walk-through, Wilson said officials made a list of things to finish doing, which explains why workers and a tractor or two are still there.

The delay didn't affect the overall cost of the project.

"There was no additional cost associated with the modifications that were made," said Wilson. "We actually had money left and were able to get some other things done."

Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8874.

Car perk reveals serious disconnect between St. Petersburg leaders and the people they serve 07/30/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 29, 2011 6:39pm]

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