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Council delays vote on spending BP money for sewers

 
Bill Hogarth of the Florida Institute of Oceanogra?phy will get $250,000 for a research vessel.
Bill Hogarth of the Florida Institute of Oceanogra?phy will get $250,000 for a research vessel.
Published Nov. 24, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council postponed a decision Monday to spend $1.5 million in settlement money from the BP oil spill on the city's aging sewer system.

The decision came on the heels of passionate statements from advocates for the arts and residents of some of the city's southern neighborhoods, each with their own designs on the money.

Of the $6.5 million St. Petersburg has received from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill settlement, the council agreed only to designate $250,000. That money will help the Florida Institute of Oceanogra­phy buy a new $6 million marine research vessel.

The current vessel, which helped the Florida Institute of Oceanography study the effects of the spill, is more than 40 years old and on its last legs, said Bill Hogarth, the center's director. He told council members that the project has $3.2 million in pledges from 14 member institutions, including the University of South Florida, Eckerd College, Florida A&M University and the Florida State University.

Mayor Rick Kriseman has presented a slate of spending proposals for how to spend the BP money, from supporting the arts to contributing toward commuter ferry service across Tampa Bay. The mayor had suggested $1 million get spent on sewer system repairs in the wake of massive discharges after heavy summer rains.

A council committee recommended increasing the figure to $1.5 million and, officially, that was the topic before the board on Monday.

Members of the public, however, urged a delay in spending the BP money, including the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of the predominantly African-American Bethel Community Baptist Church and a former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP branch.

"Allow there to be some input from the public," he said, adding that in the 23 years he has been in St. Petersburg there hasn't been enough investment in southern neighborhoods.

"My hope is that you will open the door for discussion," he said, adding that $6 million is not a lot of money, but that it can be used to help bring parity to the an area that has been marginalized.

John Collins of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance was among those who spoke on behalf of using some of the money for an arts endowment. Another speaker supported spending on a bike-share program that's also part of Kriseman's proposal, urging the council "not to pit good ideas against each other."

Kriseman had addressed the BP settlement and the sewer system during a surprise appearance at a Council of Neighborhood Associations meeting last week.

Tom Lally, secretary of the Greater Pinellas Point Civic Association, asked him then about the $1.5 million the council planned to allocate for sewer repairs and said he thought there would be more discussion before that happened. Kriseman told him to attend Monday's meeting.

On Monday, Lally urged that a decision be delayed until a study of the sewer system is completed early next year. He later told the Tampa Bay Times that he was speaking for himself, not the neighborhood group.

Kriseman has said, though, that he needs an immediate commitment for the high-speed ferry and the USF research boat. He said he wants to get money from the Legislature for those projects and the session begins in January. Last year, the governor vetoed money for the boat because he said "the local community didn't have any skin in the game," Kriseman said.

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Wastewater officials have identified $15 million in work that needs to be done right away to avoid the types of spills and dumping waste that happened in late summer. More than 31 million gallons of wastewater spilled into Boca Ciega and Tampa bays, as well as at Eckerd College's campus.

In the end, the council voted to return after the Thanksgiving holiday to discuss spending an additional $2 million for four contracts to repair part of the system, with bond money, not from the BP pool.

"Our intention is to commit ($6 million in bond money) to the sewer repairs," council member Karl Nurse said.

As for any decision on the remainder of the BP money, "It's not clear when that's going to happen," council member Steve Kornell said.

The City Council will get a report about the high-speed ferry at its Dec. 3 meeting.

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.