Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Editorials

Sweetheart deals and selective amnesia at City Hall

Amnesia is contagious in St. Petersburg City Hall. Five years after a city worker said he couldn't remember which supervisor ordered him to heavily discount transportation impact fees for a new hotel, the majority of City Council members are now claiming they never voted in January to hire an external auditor to determine if the discounts have occurred since 2008. Instead, Mayor Bill Foster and council members appear content — for a third time — to trust the same superficial investigators in City Hall. Perhaps the elected leaders are betting voters will forget they also should be accountable.

The upshot of the council's continued reticence is that without a thorough, credible and transparent review, incriminating anecdotal evidence suggests that in the recent past at least some developers received sweetheart deals from the city with no apparent justification. The issue came to the fore again last year when city staff sought approval of a $60,000 settlement with the Hilton at Carillon Park. In 2007, Pinellas County auditors determined the hotel had been undercharged in 2004 for impact fees by $219,951.

The city's first internal investigation yielded this explanation: City employee Don Tyre calculated the correct impact fee for the Hilton of $313,702 but scratched it out and replaced it with a lower fee on the orders of a supervisor. He couldn't remember which supervisor it was. The city's investigator, Brad Scott, didn't keep notes and didn't interview at least two of the five people involved. Making the issue go away apparently was more important than finding the truth.

Two years later, in 2009, another internal review of 50 cases between 2003 and 2008 found another pair of five-figure underpayments. Both were tied to hotels that failed to pay some or all of their fees but still received certificates of occupancy. What could have been an aberration appeared to be a common practice of selective favoritism.

Those facts, revealed amid last year's settlement with the Hilton, prompted the City Council to agree Jan. 12 to hire an external auditor to examine the city's books since 2008 to make sure there aren't more underpayments available for collection. But this burst of curiosity and responsibility did not last.

At a March 29 workshop, council member Steve Kornell questioned why the auditor had not started. Foster, council member Jeff Danner and several others claimed such an external audit had never been authorized. Even after reviewing the minutes from the Jan. 12 meeting, they refused to accept the truth. They insisted instead on waiting until an internal review of records since 2008 — once again being conducted by Scott — was finished before deciding to spend money on an outside auditor.

Foster told the council that he's convinced the city has not left money on the table. But that's exactly what City Hall under a different mayor said in 2007. Two years later, two more significant discounts were discovered after the most limited of reviews. So certain hotel developers have been getting substantial fee discounts at taxpayers' expense and nobody really wants to find out how and why. The City Council and mayor appear to be far more interested in protecting City Hall than ensuring accountability. They shouldn't count on voters forgetting that.

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