St. Petersburg residents learned last week just how big the secret cookie jar was at City Hall. Over the past five years — even as the city raised property tax rates to cover budget shortfalls in lean years — the city quietly accumulated $4 million left over from finished capital projects. But rather than being an asset that the City Council could redirect to priorities, city staffers appear to have kept it largely secret, offering up only a bit at a time when their bosses wanted to fund pet projects or cover shortfalls. Mayor Rick Kriseman wisely has pledged that is going to change. It's about time.
The irony is that it was exactly this tucked-in-the-sofa-cushions money that enabled Kriseman to begin his mayoral term in January in the fashion he desired. When Kriseman wanted to add high-level jobs to his office in the middle of the fiscal year, city staffers helped him find $250,000 in unused construction money to use to help cover the additional cost. All told, apparently $3.1 million of the $4 million in unused funds has been drained in such a manner in recent years.
It's just such a scheme that council member Karl Nurse — a Kriseman ally — has long suspected. For years, Nurse pestered former Mayor Bill Foster for a full accounting of the city's capital improvement accounts after watching time and again how money from various accounts could suddenly emerge midyear to pay for an unexpected expense or pet project. The accounting practice predated Foster, apparently.
Finally, under a new mayor, Nurse got his wish. That led to the budget director's report delivered to the mayor and council last week that laid out for the first time how many millions had gone unspent and where it was socked away. There are no allegations that money has been misspent, but there should have been a clearer accounting.
Kriseman has promised new openness on fiscal matters. He will need to be clear with staff that it's not their job to squirrel money away and decide when to make a withdrawal.
The money belongs to the public, and St. Petersburg taxpayers should be able to see how much is on hand just like bank customers expect to be able to see their account balance. Kriseman's team said they are confident that the culture at City Hall that operated such shell games is being transformed. That will be a welcome change.