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St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman unveils $45 million sewer fix, but reopening Albert Whitted plant isn't in the cards

Mayor Rick Kriseman’s plan won’t be finished until next fall.
Mayor Rick Kriseman’s plan won’t be finished until next fall.
Published Nov. 4, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman told City Council members Thursday that if the Chicago Cubs can win the World Series, then St. Petersburg can fix its broken sewer system.

Of course, it took 108 years for the Cubs to hoist the trophy.

The $45 million plan Kriseman unveiled Thursday to bring short-term relief to the city's beleaguered system shouldn't take that long. But the mayor doesn't have much time anyway:

Much of the improvements won't be done until September or October of 2017, well after the start of the next rainy season. That means the city could find itself dealing with another sewage crisis during Kriseman's re-election campaign next year.

The mayor's administration is still grappling with the current sewage crisis: The city's overwhelmed sewer system discharged more than 200 million gallons of waste into waterways, roadways and neighborhoods in the last 15 months, spanning two rainy seasons.

The mayor and public works chief Claude Tankersley also backtracked on a solution that was popular with City Council: reopening the Albert Whitted treatment plant. Shutting the plant down in 2015 and leaving the city with three sewage plants instead of four helped cause the current mess.

Last month Tankersley recommended reopening the plant. But contractors have looked at the 1920s-era waterfront plant and estimated that it would take up to $30 million to reopen it — about triple what Tankersley first estimated last month. And it wouldn't be ready for the 2017 rainy season as was previously hoped.

That news left council members uneasy.

"That is a change of direction that I am grappling with right now," said council member Darden Rice.

Council member Ed Montanari said he was concerned that the city has decided not to reopen the plant. Council member Steve Kornell pressed Tankersley over his assertion that the city would have still dumped or spilled millions of gallons of sewage even if Albert Whitted had remained open this whole time.

Council member Jim Kennedy said he was concerned that the city would be as vulnerable next summer as it was this past summer.

"It's possible," Tankersley replied.

Instead of reopening Albert Whitted, the mayor revealed his $45 million quick-fix plan to improve the sewage system by the end of 2017. St. Petersburg plans to spend $30 million adding 45 million gallons of capacity to two wastewater plants. The city would spend another $15 million, much of it to upgrade the worst pipes in the city. Last month a consultant said that on an average day without rain, about two-thirds of the city's sewage flow comes from groundwater penetrating leaky pipes, some of which are up to a century old.

The mayor also envisions spending $259 million over the next five years on a more comprehensive plan to fix the city's pipes, seal leaky manhole covers and expand capacity at all three sewage plants.

The total price tag for all that — $304 million — will include $142 million that will be raised by new bonds. The revenue source that would fund those new bonds has not yet been identified, the council was told.

Council member Karl Nurse said which pot is tapped for the cash to pay back bondholders is critical. He has long advocated using Penny for Pinellas dollars if voters approve an extension of that sales tax next year.

On Thursday, Kriseman agreed, saying fixing the sewers would be "an extremely appropriate use of that money."

But to create a blueprint for all that sewage work will itself cost money. The city wants to spend $3.5 million on a sewer master plan. That study would be ready in April 2019.

The City Council was upset last month when the members learned that master plans for individual wastewater facilities had been canceled in recent years.

The mayor's plan was presented after the St. Petersburg City Council complained last week that the mayor's staff had been going back and forth too much on how to deal with the sewage issue.

So council chairwoman Amy Foster and other council members took issue with Kriseman's suggestion Thursday that it was council that had spent too much time talking about sewage instead of doing something about it.

"We've haven't slowed anything down," said Montanari. "We've been waiting for a plan."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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