Appearances mean something, and the idea that St. Petersburg would steer poor residents from a community center to a private loan company to pay their utility bills did not look good. It took city officials only a day of fending off public complaints to start coming to their senses.
The plan called for saving $96,000 by no longer allowing St. Petersburg residents to pay their utility bills at the city-owned Enoch Davis Center in Midtown. Officials signed a two-year agreement with Amscot Financial to accept utility payments and collect a $1 convenience fee for each transaction. Of course, the firm also would get free advertising and more potential customers for their check cashing and high-interest payday loans.
The city needs to save money — but not by preventing low-income residents from paying their utility bills at an accessible community center and sending them to a less convenient, high-pressure financial services operator. Common sense is prevailing. The City Council on Thursday voted to keep allowing utility bills to be paid at Enoch Davis and to study the relationship with Amscot.
There remains the appearance of favoritism at the public's expense. Amscot vice president Deveron Gibbons was a major supporter and fundraiser for Mayor Rick Baker's campaigns, and he has said he plans to run for mayor in 2009. Baker says a city committee selected Amscot, but it still looks awfully cozy. If Gibbons runs for mayor and the Amscot arrangement survives, he will have to explain why this deal appears to be better for his company than for St. Petersburg residents.
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Living in an uninsulated, unheated shed doesn't sound like much, unless you compare it to a tent. The tiny wooden houses that have been under construction at Pinellas Hope will be a step up for the area's homeless. But because these temporary dwellings didn't have building permits, the program was almost stymied until county leaders and administrators quickly resolved the glitch.
The Pinellas County building department was poised to require Catholic Charities, the managers of Pinellas Hope, to apply for building permits for each of the 6-by-8-foot structures. Eleven have been built and 90 more are planned at $1,000 each if the money can be raised. The county's $75 permitting fee would have added significantly to the cost of each shelter, and for no valid reason beyond bureaucratic rule-following.
But county officials cut through the red tape after it became public. The building department determined that all the sheds could be covered by a single $75 permit to be renewed annually. This is good news for the homeless and a nod to common sense. Wood sheds are better than tents, and it doesn't take permits to prove it.