ST. PETERSBURG — At a tense meeting Thursday, City Council members refused to back Mayor Rick Kriseman's plans for $6.5 million in BP settlement money.
Instead, they focused on the city's stressed sewage system, which led to discharges of more than 30 million gallons of wastewater in early August. The consensus was that most of the money from the settlement should go to repair the system, rather than the mayor's projects, which include an arts endowment and a bike share program.
The joint meeting of two council committees passed a motion asking for an expanded study to learn what it would cost to improve the sewer system and to help determine its cost to taxpayers. Council member Karl Nurse estimated a fix could add about $3.50 a month to residents' water bills. He said Penny for Pinellas funds and the BP money also could be used for the multimillion-dollar project.
The study should be complete by January, at which time council members will decide how to allocate the BP money.
Nurse said the city has "serious deferred maintenance on our sewer system, and we need to piece together at least $15 million more in the next five years."
Jim Kennedy, chairman of the Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee, called it "scary" that the city is $15 million short of what is budgeted for repairs over the next five years.
"What it makes me wonder is, what's around the corner?" he said. "I think it's our job to set public policy. We want to have a sewer system that is as robust, as good as we can make it, with the limited economic tools we have."
Council members questioned interim public works administrator Tom Gibson and water resources director Steve Leavitt after their update about the system and its immediate needs.
Council member Steve Kornell wanted to know at what point the city needs to consider the capacity of its treatment plants, especially with increasing numbers of condominiums rising downtown. "This can happen again," he warned.
Kriseman, who sat through the discussion, challenged some of the council members' assertions.
" 'Immediate needs' are simply prioritizing which of our pipes need to be addressed first," he said. "It doesn't indicate that if we don't address them within the next month that we're going to have a system failure."
Kriseman told council members that time is a factor for several of his earmarks for the BP money, particularly the $350,000 he wants to spend on a ferry service for St. Petersburg to Tampa and the $250,000 to help the University of South Florida buy a new marine research vessel. Both projects are dependent on additional funding and could be brought up during the upcoming legislative session that starts in January, Kriseman said.
Council members passed a motion asking the mayor to provide more details about those two projects. But the fate of other proposals, such as $1 million for the bike share program and another $1 million for the proposed arts endowment, are uncertain.
Problems with the city's sewage system became public after the wastewater department was forced to discharge millions of gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage into Clam Bayou, Tampa Bay and the campus of Eckerd College early in August.
After the meeting, Kriseman's office provided a statement. It said in part:
"Tens of millions of dollars are already budgeted to maintain and repair our sewer system. I will continue to advocate for proactive policies, ideas and solutions that position St. Petersburg for the future, and I encourage community members who are supportive of items like resiliency, sustainability, energy efficiency, alternative transportation, research and the arts to contact our City Council."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.