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County, city feud over gas tax hike

The truce is over. Relations between St. Petersburg and Pinellas County have turned sour again.

The first sign of trouble was a petulant speech by Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart, who said St. Petersburg was acting self-centered and petty.

St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Bill Foster upped the ante with an angry letter, accusing county commissioners of trying to "extort" political cover for a potentially unpopular tax increase.

The city and county are back at it, with the fate of a proposed gas tax increase in the balance. "Let the games begin," Foster said.

The extra penny tax would go to battle road congestion by creating a system of signals on major arteries that could rapidly adapt to traffic, reducing delays, improving air quality and cutting fuel consumption.

On Dec. 20, the County Commission narrowly voted against raising the gas tax a penny, even as members acknowledged that residents are hungry for measures to ease traffic flow.

Commissioners who killed the hike said they were wary of approving a countywide tax without St. Petersburg and Clearwater agreeing to become part of the improved traffic system the penny would help fund.

Since that vote, Clearwater has committed to the proposed system. But St. Petersburg City Council members canceled a workshop to discuss the issue and haven't decided whether to turn over control of its traffic signals to the county.

The city's lack of cooperation led to some angry words at a County Commission meeting last Tuesday.

City development director Rick Mussett and other St. Petersburg officials were at the meeting, where commissioners voted to dedicate $2-million of future county tax revenue so that the Florida Orchestra can build a headquarters at the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg.

The city needed the money for the orchestra project, which is part of a drive to turn downtown into a thriving arts center.

Just before taking the vote, the board had set a date, March 14, to vote again on the gas tax hike.

County Commissioner Bob Stewart called the juxtaposition of the agenda items "more than entertainingly coincidental."

At times looking directly at Mussett, Stewart directed County Administrator Steve Spratt to compile a list of what he called the many generous gestures the county has made toward St. Petersburg. The $2-million for the Florida Orchestra, he said, is just the latest example of the county's goodwill.

Stewart also listed an agreement the county made to extend an existing downtown taxing district that will pay for nearly $100-million in city projects and the county's purchase of Tropicana Field from the city, which spared St. Petersburg a mammoth tax bill.

Stewart said the county was trying to fix a major transportation problem with the penny tax and he found it disappointing "one city would lag behind and not participate at this stage, but yet would be quick to come forward and ask the county's continued financial participation in solving an issue."

When those remarks got back to Foster, he fired off an angry letter to the other council members and Mayor Rick Baker. Foster accused the commission of trying to strong-arm the city into going along with their plan.

"I will not be extorted, nor will I allow myself to make this decision because there is a "goodwill' score to settle," Foster wrote. "I will also not consider the veiled threats that future requests by the city will be summarily dismissed because - Game Over."

The city and county have squabbled over everything from annexation to who should pay for additional fire hydrants in the unincorporated area of Lealman.

Control of the traffic signals has been a contentious issue in the past, and Baker said he doesn't support turning them over to the county.

"We've been very consistent in our position that we want to keep control of our own system," he said.

Despite the insistence the city get on board with the county's plan for the gas tax hike, Pinellas could pass the tax without St. Petersburg's support. City residents would still have to pay the tax. And there was a sense at Tuesday's commission meeting that the county would move no matter what St. Petersburg decided.

"It really, really needs to be done regardless of St. Petersburg," County Commissioner Susan Latvala said. "If they want to play, they can. But we can't hold up improvements for the rest of the county."