Just when it looked like St. Petersburg would never get to the bottom of how City Hall came to undercharge at least three hotel developers for transportation impact fees in the past decade, the City Council wisely reversed itself again Thursday and ordered an external audit. Only an independent accounting of the city's permitting department will lay to rest the questions of whether these were mistakes or a calculated scheme still not fully uncovered.
Council member Steve Kornell deserves the credit for Thursday night's 5-3 vote to spend $50,000 to hire an outside auditor to review a sample of transportation impact fees from 2004 to 2011. Kornell and council member Wengay Newton have been the most consistent advocates on the council for transparency since the issue re-emerged late last year when city attorneys won permission to settle with one hotel developer for just $60,000 of the unpaid $219,951 in impact fees.
Thursday's vote was actually an improvement upon a short-lived January council decision that would have hired an outside auditor to review a sample of impact fees since 2008. The majority of the council members, apparently suffering from collective amnesia, claimed in March that they had meant to just vote for another internal review by the city staff — which had already failed repeatedly to do a thorough job. Finally, on Thursday, they got it right. The independent audit is to include the period before 2008 where irregularities have already been documented three times.
Exactly why this has been such a hard issue for some council members is difficult to understand. Council members Jim Kennedy, Jeff Danner and Bill Dudley voted against the audit Thursday. Kennedy claimed he's convinced the issue is moot since all the involved city employees no longer work for the city — which is not true. And all three called the audit a waste of $50,000, forgetting that, as council member Karl Nurse aptly put it, "losing the public trust is very expensive, too."
What the public does know already does not instill trust that City Hall was playing fair in the recent past. The facts known so far: The Hilton at Carillon received a six-figure break on its transportation impact fee in 2004. Paperwork showed that the correct amount was originally calculated, only to be scratched out by a city employee who said a supervisor — he can't remember whom — told him to do it. But the public wouldn't even know that much if it weren't for an eagle-eyed Pinellas County staffer who caught the error. Subsequent internal reviews by the city staff were haphazard and turned up two more five-figure underpayments. Both were tied to hotels that failed to pay some or all of their fees but still received certificates of occupancy.
The City Council finally committed Thursday to finding out more. It's about time.