Government Overreach Hinders Progress in Our City
Welcome to the 9th edition of the Saint Petersburg Florida Area News podcast for the year 2019. I’m your host, Joshua Black, and this episode will cover the City Council committee meetings held on February 28th. This episode is a bit more detailed than most previous episodes, but there is a good reason for that.
But first, we must pause, because Councilmember Lisa Wheeler Bowman had a death in her family last week and thus has been absent for the last two meetings. Please keep her in your prayers.
The first committee of the day was the Budget, Finance, and Taxation Committee (also known as BF&T). Council received a quarterly financial report from Anne Fritz.
As she gave her report about city investments, Charlie Gerdes (council chair, but committee vice chair) asked what legal issues might arise if the city invested some of the monies tied up in bonds to make loans to local businesses who couldn’t get loans elsewhere. His reasoning is that the city could probably get the same rate of return on the investment as they were getting from the bonds. He might be right, but it isn’t his money. Sad how willing he is to risk other people’s money, especially after forcing them to pay it into city coffers in the first place. City Council’s attorney told him that it’s probably illegal to do it, anyway.
As she continued her report, Anne made the claim that the city’s investment strategy is to buy stable investments for the most part (21% of the portfolio is US Treasury Bonds, so your taxes are funding federal deficit spending, too), staying away from investments rated BBB or lower, by general policy. When Ed Montanari (council vice chair, but chair of this committee) pointed out that a recent investment in AT&T was rated BBB instead of BBB+, she explained that the downgrade happened after the purchase by the city and was only for a 1 year term, versus the 5 year or longer terms generally sought.
When Gerdes asked about the dire predictions for the market, Anne said that the types of investments the city holds are generally the kind of investments that investors seek in a bad market. Thus, the city expects to have its holdings increase in value during a recession, should it hit. Gerdes also asked about liquidity. Anne responded that the city investment team timed the maturity of some bonds and other investment certificates to coincide with expected increases in city expenditures.
On page 64 of the pdf for the council committee report (link is here, but make sure you view it instead of download, unless you have 262 pages worth of space on your device: http://www.stpete.org/committee%20packets/Budget%20Finance%20and%20Taxation%20Committee/2019-02-28%20BFT%20Agenda.pdf), Anne showed that the pension funds for the city’s employees are generally solvent, with the Fire Department having the best position overall, followed by most other employees, and then by the police. On page 67, she also noted that the $218,786 balance shown for the Weeki Wachee Fund was actually inaccurate because the balance at the end of January was more than $1.1M. That became important later in the day.
The next committee to meet was the Public Services & Infrastructure Committee. Normally, Steve Kornell leads this committee as chair, but Ed Montanari (the vice chair of the committee) was leading that, too, as Kornell had a prior engagement.
The first matter was a presentation in favor of applying the name of recently deceased Benjamin F Shirley to the administrative building of the Sanitation Department where he worked for so long. During and after the presentation, everyone spoke of his humility and servant leadership during his tenure. The proposal was unanimously recommended to the full council for final approval.
The next proposal regarded an idea called Responsible Wage. Basically, most members of the city council think that they can blithely ignore the laws of economics to achieve their societal goals (which has been evident for the few months I’ve been monitoring them). Staff objected to the proposal, stating that the two current wage regulations were already making it more difficult for the procurement department to get bids from vendors for city projects. The Living Wage standard applies to all services, while the prevailing wage for apprentices applies to construction trades. The Responsible Wage mandate would apply to more trades than the apprenticeship program. The associated higher costs limits the pool of qualified companies, but both Gerdes and Gina Driscoll insisted that companies that pay less aren’t the kind of people they want to hand these contracts to.
I don’t think the city government should be doing these projects, anyway. If they are that necessary, let the people closer to the situation raise the funds and choose a contractor–or ten–to do the job. City government should be focused on crime victims, not cosmetics. Of course, that is not what staff proposed.
Staff requested that council wait until July to try to implement the new wage standard, to give staff time to adjust to the monitoring software that they are using to track compliance with the apprenticeship wage mandate. Driscoll objected, saying that it is better to overcome all the bumps in the road together than to have two distinct learning curve periods. Staff responded that they don’t have the manpower to enforce compliance. Driscoll insisted that the software actually makes enforcement more efficient.
Council member Amy Foster strenuously objected to the presence of waivers given by administration of the apprenticeship standard for construction projects awarded after the wage ordinance passed. Staff pointed out that the one incident brought up (a project in Carillon Park) had been put out for bid twice and only received one offer, and that from a company that was not a full participant in the state’s apprenticeship program. The choices were to go with an “unqualified” but capable company or to be forced to increase the payout, an issue Montanari had sought to address before the final vote but had not received cooperation from the same staff after a full month. Montanari didn’t bring that up, though.
Deputy Mayor Dr. Kanika Tomalin stated that any future projects awarded with waivers of the apprenticeship prevailing wage mandate would generate a full report to council. This came up later.
Gerdes offered a compromise, saying that the effective date for the responsible wage proposal should be implemented later but passed now. The rest of the committee seemed to be on board.
The next committee was the Housing, Land Use, and Transportation committee, chaired by Brandi Gabbard. This meeting started later than desired, because of the need for a quorum. Gabbard and Darden Rice were the only two members of the committee present for the scheduled time, with Wheeler Bowman out for the aforementioned family loss and Kornell out with his prior engagement. So the committee had to wait for Driscoll because neither Montanari nor Gerdes are voting members of the committee. Nobody died, but Gabbard noted that delays like these cost committee participants during lunch time.
The committee met to address zoning changes that could be brought to address the lack of affordable housing inside the city limits, but, first, Rice pointed out that there is a June 27 deadline for getting a referendum for taxes to fund housing subsidies on the ballot in the fall. Gabbard noted that the committee would need to hear and pass it on to full council by April. Here’s hoping they fail.
Derek Kilborn, Manager for Urban Planning and Historic Preservation, gave three out of four planned presentations for trying to change the zoning and land use regulations to make life less expensive for developers to provide lower priced units. The first proposal was to reduce parking requirements. The existing regulations can be found starting on Page 16 of the HLUT pdf (link is here: http://www.stpete.org/committee%20packets/Housing%20Land%20Use%20and%20Transportation%20Committee/2019-02-28%20HLUT%20Agenda.pdf), and Derek used that format to highlight proposed changes to the code to reduce parking requirements. Committee members generally sided with the more aggressive reductions in regulations, but Driscoll objected to reductions for downtown, because of the severe parking scarcity already in place.
Behind motions from Rice, the committee moved forward the proposals for reducing parking requirements, but Rob Gerdes objected when one of Rice’s motions included a requirement for commercial space on the ground level for apartment complexes in exchange for an exemption for providing parking. He stated that the council should include an exemption for subsidized housing, particularly “public housing,” because part of the operating budget for the Saint Petersburg Housing Authority comes from the sale of tax credits, which (as was noted in the previous Committee of the Whole with the SPHA) is compromised when commercial uses (office or retail) are included on site. Kilborn advised that the exemption Rob Gerdes sought could be added later, and thus the committee moved the matter forward without it.
Supply and demand should control parking, not government mandates. Government mandates cause waste because the market isn’t allowed to adjust to the best use of the property in question. One of the mandates on the books today insists that an apartment complex must provide a certain number of maintained parking spaces, which can be reduced if the building is primarily for low-income renters, so long as the ground area for the spaces that are no longer required because of the exemption is maintained as green or unimproved space (held in reserve), just in case the complex later becomes more profit oriented. Which is ludicrous, because older buildings don’t command higher rents later in life. The committee was eager to strike that requirement.
Another zoning change would be to allow for garage apartments and the like (accessory dwelling units) on the plots of single-family homes in all Neighborhood Traditional and Neighborhood Suburban zones. There is still a requirement for permitting and other processes, but this would allow new income properties to be built where they are currently prohibited. Mostly, this is accomplished by retrofitting existing structures, but new buildings could also be included. This kind of apartment is where I lived for the first eight months I spent in Saint Petersburg when I moved here back in November of 2007, so I was actually unaware of the restrictions on it. The committee moved forward the changes for Neighborhood Traditional but not Neighborhood Suburban.
The third kind of zoning change that Kilborn presented would allow for a new zoning category he called “the missing middle.” This designation recognizes that certain larger homes in Saint Petersburg have already been retrofitted to become multi-family dwellings and allows new construction to meet those same standards, with structural criteria adjusted to the number of units. As a delivery driver and a taxi driver, I have seen these gigantic homes with originally 10 or 15 rooms converted into affordable smaller units in Old Northeast, something that Darden Rice also mentioned, since it is part of her council district. The committee advanced this proposal, too.
All I could think of when I read the proposal is that this city is going to end up looking like Houston, but the city is going to deprive a lot more people of valuable resources while we get there and won’t reap the benefits. Houston has allowed these kinds of developments for years, having lightened the oppressive hand of the government upon the housing market. The result is that the cost of housing is actually lower in that city of 4 million than it is in this city of 250,000.
The committee ran out of time before Kilborn could present on Floor to Area Ratio bonuses, so we’ll have to attend the next meeting on March 28th to cover that report.
After lunch, the agenda review for the council meeting for March 14th took place with Kornell finally able to join in. The administration pulled an item from Consent Agenda A because of Tomalin’s promise earlier in the day to give a full report on any contracts awarded with apprenticeship waivers. Kornell also added a new business item to spend $650,000 in Weeki Wachee funds on a project for his district. He had mentioned that he was wondering if he should hold off until the fund improved, but Gerdes told him that Anne Fritz had given them the updated number from January that indicated that the funding was there.
Also, we can expect fireworks for the E2 presentation. Staff wants to move forward with the design funding for a project that might not get completed because the feds haven’t released the funding yet. Montanari doesn’t like the idea of spending the design funds early, but PSTA is saying that they will exclude any further artwork from the design if there is a delay. This is for the Bus Rapid Transit shelters.
At 2:30, the Committee of the Whole convened to discuss the EMS growth management plan deferred at a previous council meeting. Basically, Pinellas County is trying to catch up with most of the rest of the country and only send out a transport vehicle (the contractor Sunstar) when the call isn’t a true emergency (alpha level). This would keep the emergency response vehicles available for the true emergency calls (bravo and above).
Fire Chief Large stated that the assessment of calls fielded by the city fire department last year showed that there were 359 times in which fire department resources had to delay a response to actually critical calls, versus 33 times when calls were dispatched as alpha that should have been higher priority. They would rather have had the resources on hand and not already deployed to respond more quickly to the more emergent calls. Presumably, this would also shorten response times for the calls that start lower and get escalated higher.
Fire Chief Womack also said that the Fire Department wants to start implementing more care responses, such as sending a lone EMT (not even paramedic, which is currently the lowest level of dispatched response team member) to respond to care only calls on an as needed basis. Honestly, I’m sad this isn’t already happening. The reason it isn’t is that people who don’t know what else to do in a medical situation they haven’t prepared for call 911 whether it is the best option or not. This is because the services offered through 911 are not billed immediately and directly. If it were, there could be competition and reason introduced into the medical service marketplace, but that would mean the end of a tax-funded fire department and ambulance service, so that wasn’t on the table.
The committee members didn’t even have intelligent questions to ask, despite spending one on one time with the chiefs during the two weeks between the council meeting where this was deferred and the committee of the whole meeting that took place on Thursday. Gabbard asked if Sunstar would be able to handle the increased volume. Problem: Sunstar is already responding to all of these calls already. Their workload wouldn’t change, one way or the other. The Fire Department does not transport anyone to the hospital. They do some preliminary work and hand the patient off to Sunstar. Adopting this protocol would mean not sending the fire department when the preliminary work isn’t necessary. It would increase the response time to close to ten minutes from 5.6, but the fire department would be responding more quickly to more urgent calls.
Rice asked if the dispatchers are trained well enough to know how to dispatch calls with the right codes. I almost laughed myself out of the room. Was she listening to the same testimony? The alpha level calls that the Fire Department is asking permission not to respond to (only two codes in alpha level, not even all alpha codes) represented 4833 of the calls they responded to in 2018. They only may have dispatched 33 of them improperly, and 16 of them were either escalated by the responding crew or given a reasonable explanation. Only 17 times out of 4833 did people receive an alpha response who needed bravo or more urgent. This is with language barriers, accents, and people unfamiliar with medical terminology (which is most of us) calling in. The dispatchers know what they are doing. My own wife used to be one.
Foster asked if choosing not to answer 4833 calls is actually lightening a load on the department. She stated that it doesn’t seem to have a statistical significance when compared to the number of fire stations, saying that it means that one unit would be more available per day. However, that’s exactly the result the fire department is asking for: to be able to more quickly respond to 359 calls that got longer response times because of alpha calls. One freer unit in the entire department per day is 365 occasions of faster service for calls more urgent than alphas, not to mention 1 per day from each station. Did she do any math at all?
Kornell brought up the fact that the same two chiefs had fiercely opposed a similar measure some years ago. Chief Womack stated that the reason he was amenable to this change this time is that the text of the the interlocal agreement states today that the current funding levels for the city fire department are the minimum necessary for proper function. They didn’t have this reassurance in the text of the last proposal.
It eventually became clear that the council members didn’t have a good reason to prohibit the move. They just want to satisfy the union’s request for more staff (read: dues payers). Too bad fire/rescue response isn’t a market function. The council voted to delay the proposal indefinitely.
Notwithstanding this ludicrous debate, many members of the public are already using other services to get to the ER. When I was a taxi driver, I drove at least four people to the ER, and twice when I was with Uber. My own wife has taken Lyft. I drove her to the ER when she had the pains that led to her ovarian surgery (read about that here: https://littlebitcrunchy.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/dealing-with-my-dermoid-cyst/). I drove our daughter to the ER after she fell. The people are choosing not to pay $600 for transport, like I did back when I was single and had my appendix pains which led to emergency surgery. And, yes, that was the ambulance bill for the time that the paramedic from Sunstar deliberately taped an IV line to the blistered burn on my right arm. Yep. I paid $600 for that. Still bitter about that.
After a break, the committee of the whole reconvened to discuss again the Storefront Conservation Corridor Overlay, which the affected owners have objected to publicly. Mayor Rick Kriseman and his staff both complained that none of the offended business owners would meet with them to convey their concerns, saying that council should just move forward with the plan as a whole instead of splitting it. What didn’t occur to these tyrants is that the business owners don’t like the idea of new government restrictions on top of the current restrictions they must already comply with and the higher taxes they are already paying for being in a “special taxing district.” The reason for lack of public engagement for proposals like these and like Bus Rapid Transit is a lack of interest in advancing the project, not a lack of input opportunities. The people affected by the actions of the government in these cases simply don’t want the government to do these things, and I don’t blame them.
The proposal was moved forward mostly unchanged and was rejoined, but the date was changed. Instead of March 14th for the second reading of the grant program and April 18th for the zoning portion, both were moved to April 4th for second reading and public hearing. I will be in attendance to speak against them.
But I will not be in attendance for the first two meetings in March. I have to spend time with my family for the first week, and I have a work related trip for the second. I will be available for the March 21st meeting, and I will resume regular summaries for you at that time. Thanks for listening.
This has been Saint Petersburg, Florida, Area News, a production of the Reconstructionist Radio Network.