The solution to St. Petersburg's cash crunch sounds so obvious it is embraced by City Hall critics of all political stripes: Take millions earmarked to rebuild the Pier and spend them on a new police headquarters instead. That is a simplistic solution to a more complicated problem, and St. Petersburg should not sacrifice one worthy public works project for another.
Here's the math. The city has $50 million in property tax money set aside to replace the Pier with a visionary concept that has been thoroughly vetted. It has plans for a badly needed new police headquarters with a $64 million price tag but only $32 million in Penny for Pinellas money to pay for it. Mayor Bill Foster has acknowledged there isn't enough money for the police headquarters and that the city has to re-evaluate its options.
For stating the obvious, Foster finds himself in a political vice. Voices as diverse as tea party activist David McKalip and Democratic state Rep. Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg contend Foster should reorder his priorities and spend much of the Pier money on a new police station. Governing should be so easy.
As a former City Council member, Kriseman in particular should know this money cannot easily be shifted from one project to another. The money set aside for the Pier is part of a longtime city-county agreement to reinvest a certain portion of local property taxes within St. Petersburg's downtown redevelopment zone. It can't go to projects outside the zone, such as the police headquarters.
City officials say it might be possible to change the zone's boundaries to include the police headquarters building and make such a money transfer technically legal. But that would be complicated and require approval from both the city and the county as well as additional economic studies that may not support the change. Even if it worked, this would be the sort of bait and switch that is more familiar in Tallahassee, where legislators arbitrarily shift revenue dedicated for a specific use — gas taxes for roads — to pay for other services and avoid raising taxes. The whole idea behind the money earmarked for the Pier is to spend property tax money generated by rising property values on improvements in the same area that already is defined.
City critics also fail to acknowledge that maintaining the status quo at the Pier is impossible without spending more money. By 2014, engineers have warned the city will need to place a fence on the land-side of the Pier's 1,000-foot approach because it won't be strong enough to support vehicles. In the critics' world, St. Petersburg could have a new police headquarters but the city's aging landmark would be barricaded behind a chain-link fence.
St. Petersburg needs a new police headquarters, and there is broad support for a new Pier even if some are still warming to the new design. The challenge for Foster and the City Council is to find a way to get both built. That could mean designing the projects to ensure they are built with the money available and that future phases can be added later. Or it could mean finding more money for one or both. But the solution is not to break the legal strings tied to the Pier money and spend it on a new police station blocks away.