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  1. Opinion

Editorial: St. Petersburg should wait on spending most BP money

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has imaginative plans to spend BP settlement dollars to fight environmental calamity and enhance the city’s quality of life. But the City Council has wisely applied the brakes until it explores the more mundane task of making sure a leaky sewage treatment system does not overflow during heavy rainstorms like it did this summer.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has imaginative plans to spend BP settlement dollars to fight environmental calamity and enhance the city’s quality of life. But the City Council has wisely applied the brakes until it explores the more mundane task of making sure a leaky sewage treatment system does not overflow during heavy rainstorms like it did this summer.
Published Nov. 27, 2015

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has imaginative plans to spend BP settlement dollars to fight environmental calamity and enhance the city's quality of life. But the City Council has wisely applied the brakes until it explores the more mundane task of making sure a leaky sewage treatment system does not overflow during heavy rainstorms like it did this summer. August's dumping of raw sewage underscores the wisdom of delaying spending too many BP dollars until a study in January sheds more light on the benefits of sewer repairs and how to best finance them.

The recent global settlement of claims from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster has city and county officials all over Florida rethinking their budgets because of an unexpected influx of cash. Many think these one-time dollars should flow directly to environment-related programs, such as expanding Hillsborough County's land acquisition and protection program. Others advocate splashy "legacy" projects, like Mayor Bob Buckhorn's plan to augment Tampa's green space by remaking Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. Pasco County officials may finance recurring infrastructure needs, such as fixing crumbling roads and stormwater pipes weakened in August's flooding.

In St. Petersburg, Kriseman's suggestions for the city's $6.5 million BP allotment include forward-thinking projects like making city buildings more energy efficient and developing a "resiliency" plan to prepare for sea level rise and extreme weather events. Proposals to replace an aging marine research vessel — the City Council voted last week to contribute $250,000 in BP money to the $6 million cost of a new ship — and experiment with running a ferry between Tampa and St. Petersburg also have environmentally connected merit. Other parts of Kriseman's plan bear closer scrutiny, like setting aside $1 million for a bike share program. Though environmentally friendly, that allocation still has kinks to work out. His proposed $1 million contribution to seed a citywide arts endowment has no underlying environmental connection and is better left to compete with other worthy causes during annual budget discussions.

The City Council has rightly put the brakes on most BP spending until the mayor and council members can figure out the best way to finance sewer repairs. The city recently dumped 31 million gallons of raw and partly treated sewage during massive rainstorms because leaky pipes and manhole covers allowed excessive water intrusion. The city's current five-year budget is about $15 million short of covering all repairs designated as "high priority.'' A council committee has recommended using at least $1.5 million of BP money on sewers and may boost that amount early next year when the administration completes a detailed report on the system's needs.

The difficulty with sewer repair is figuring out the bang for the buck. The August rains were extraordinary by any measure, and St. Petersburg was not alone among Pinellas cities dumping sewage. Some leakage comes from pipes on private property that connect homes to the sewer system, and it's not clear how much extra protection is gained by accelerating all "high priority'' repairs.

Still, hoping for dry weather is not a solution. BP money could turn out to be a critical piece of a sewer solution or, maybe, repairs can be financed through a fee increase, spreading costs among all ratepayers. Waiting a few months to gain a better understanding of options is the wise course.

The BP dollars are not going anywhere.