Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Digging up the moolah

Look, we all know St. Petersburg is often unfairly characterized as geezer central, God's waiting room and all the rest of the well-worn geriatric barbs.

But really now, does St. Petersburg City Hall have to play into the old fogey reputation by acting like the addled uncle in the attic squirreling away paint cans filled with cash buried in the back yard?

It was not all that long ago former Mayor Bill Foster was practically wandering around Williams Park panhandling for spare change just to pay the city's toner budget for the copy machine. No money for this. No money for that. It's a wonder the cops weren't issued a single bullet — a la Deputy Barney Fife — to safeguard the citizenry while patrolling the streets in go-karts.

But while Foster was replacing employee coffee machines with Sanka, there was an estimated $93.5 million lying around in City Hall for all practical purposes in seat cushions, coin jars and cabinets filed under "Mad Money."

As the Tampa Bay Times' Kameel Stanley has reported, there are approximately 453 "open and active" capital projects that combined have up to $93.5 million sitting unspent. But many projects, such as a fire station, a renovated school building and various other construction and/or remodeling efforts have been completed with sizeable amounts of money still left over in various accounts when the cash could have been used elsewhere — like purchasing an abacus to keep track of the moolah?

St. Petersburg council member Karl Nurse was not amused, but then again, the last time Nurse cracked a smile anyway was somewhere around 1975. For the past five years Nurse has been asking City Hall factotums for a comprehensive accounting of expenditures for capital improvements. Five years?!?!

It's not as if the tentacles of St. Petersburg city government are some vast, opaque, mysterious Kremlin-on-the Bay bureaucracy. Or at least it shouldn't be. It shouldn't require a five-year waiting period to find out if there was any money left over when construction of Lake Maggiore Fire Station No. 8 was completed. This is a "For your eyes only" state secret?

Nurse found at least 30 projects on the list that qualified for the city's first annual money stuffed away in a sock drawer award, including renovations to the Jordan Park Elementary School building that resulted in $400,000 still sitting in the project's account.

The "Money? What money? Oh, that money!" revelations began to pique the curiosity of Nurse and other council members when incoming Mayor Rick Kriseman announced he was planning to beef up his inner sanctum staffing with deputy mayors, press secretaries, assorted minions, a Lord Chancellor of the Exchequer, a Vice Lord of the Admiralty, a Joint Chief of Staff, an ambassador to Sopchoppy and Secretary of the Vision Thing.

To pay for all these folks, Kriseman explained he planned to tap into left over funds from completed city projects. Nurse was even less amused, if that's possible.

But not even Kriseman seemed to know the potential windfall of money aging away in oak barrels of accounting sleight of hand could be as much as $93.5 million — give or take a fire station here, a parking lot there.

Jeepers, with that kind of money gestating in city coffers, it must be irresistible for Kriseman not to want to hire some Secret Service agents, a mayoral chef and the official Hizzoner One airplane.

At least Kriseman is attempting to be more forthcoming about city finances as Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin makes her way around City Hall looking for mattresses stuffed with gold doubloons.

"There's no general explanation that applies to the list (of projects)," Tomalin said. "Apparently there are additional variables." Apparently.

But thanks to Karl Nurse, the Great Sphinx of City Hall, at last St. Petersburg government can move beyond treating its finances as if it were something out of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre — if they find all the money.

Memo to Tomalin: Don't forget to look under the potted plants.

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