The St. Petersburg City Council spent two hours this week scraping together another $3 million toward a new police headquarters whose size and cost remain uncertain years after the project was proposed. The excruciating exercise highlighted one more mess Mayor Bill Foster has left for his successor, and Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman will have to provide stronger leadership and find more money to clean it up.
The City Council discussion Monday night and the public opposition to allocating more Penny for Pinellas money toward a new police headquarters underscore St. Petersburg's predicament. No one disputes that the city needs a modern police headquarters and that the current buildings along First Avenue N are inadequate. As Foster told council members, this is a need and not a want. But after that, nothing is settled.
Just like with the Pier, the baseball stadium debate and so many other issues, the departing mayor failed to lead on a clear way forward. When voters decided in 2007 to extend the Penny for Pinellas from 2010 to 2020, St. Petersburg penciled in $50 million for a new police headquarters. Foster took office in 2010, and in 2011 city officials talked about a $64 million project and bought more land. In 2012, they scrapped that idea as too expensive. Eight months ago, they hired an architect to design a $40 million building. Now that is up in the air and three new proposals range from $40 million to $50 million to $68 million. It will be up to the next mayor to sort it out and build consensus on a City Council that will have two new members.
That won't be easy. The council voted 4-3 Monday night to allocate an additional $3 million in Penny for Pinellas money to the project. But that was after reducing Foster's request for $4.7 million and earmarking the rest for parks and neighborhood projects delayed by declining sales tax collections during the economic downturn. Council member Charlie Gerdes proposed the reasonable compromise after explaining this is unanticipated savings, not money taken from other Penny for Pinellas projects.
The public opposition and the divide on the council reflected how challenging it will be for St. Petersburg to raise the money to build an appropriate police headquarters. The $40 million proposal is inadequate and would foolishly leave part of the current buildings boarded up when they should be demolished. The $68 million option sounds awfully pricey, given the city's other needs. Regardless of the path forward, the project is going to require more money and harder choices.
More than six years ago, then-St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker helped persuade voters to extend the Penny for Pinellas that would provide the money for a new police headquarters. For four years, the current mayor failed to stick to a plan and a price. In the next four years, the next mayor will have to pick a plan, a price — and get it built.