Trials of Tryants
Four Committees decide how worst to spend your money.
Welcome to the 4th edition of the Saint Petersburg Florida Area News podcast for the year 2019. I’m your host, Joshua Black, and today we will be covering the committing meetings of the Saint Petersburg City Council that took place on January 24.
The first meeting was the Budget, Finance, and Taxation Committee meeting (hereafter referred to as BF&T). The city is proposing a nexus study to discover what sorts of fees the city can collect from new development to use for housing subsidies. The expert that is asking for $40,000 to study the ideas related to linkage fees and impact fees noted that people who buy and sell and develop land have frequently found ways to get around the fee requirements by using the code language against the would-be fee-collectors. No shock, really. That’s also how the very wealthy avoid paying income taxes.
Vice Chair Councilman Charlie Gerdes noted the contradiction in policy: the government promises incentives for companies to create local jobs and then turns around and demands fees for the infrastructure and housing subsidies. However, he didn’t question the wisdom of being so double-minded.
An odd moment in the meeting came when the discussion came to the idea of a focus group. The consultant openly stated expressly that he prefers a “progressive leaning” make up in such a group. I suppose he expects a rubber stamp for his assumptions? Unfortunately, no one on the committee called him out on it. Present were Montanari (chair), Driscoll, Foster, and Gerdes.
As the conversation continued, both staff and the proposed consultant spoke about how impact fees, linkage fees, and housing subsidy initiatives were combined with other things in places all around the country–places like Boston, New Jersey, and the West Coast. What wasn’t noted by any members of the committee, at least not outloud, is that not one of the places mentioned could be described as a model for affordable housing. The cost of living in all of those places is already much higher than it is in Saint Petersburg. Why should we adopt their practices if we don’t want their outcomes? Or do we want their outcomes?
The proposed consultant also mentioned that he preferred to focus on getting people into rentals rather than into mortgages, but he also said that the way the city gets people into mortgages (down payment assistance, for example) could be leveraged for higher dollars. He suggested that, if the city pays 5% down on the property, and the owner later sells, the city should get 5% of the new sale price, adding that to the burden of marketing the home. What a way to keep the poor from rising.
Obviously, people who need down payment assistance aren’t in the upper wealth classes of society, but yet these are the people this plan would target for 5% of the sale prices of the homes the city helped them get into. While the idea is that inflation is going to increase the “value” of the home, not only is that not a guarantee, but now that additional 5% off the top limits the options of the seller. And that 5% was just an example. It might be greater. Again, no one mentioned the potential for adverse effects in this scenario, either.
It may just be that most of the city council members simply don’t understand math. Remember last week that the budget proposal was $13.5M beyond expected revenues? Well, today, the city administrator, Tom Greene, talked about using the general fund to help the government dependent non-profits in the area who haven’t received moneys they thought they would because of the federal shutdown, provided they pay back the city whenever they get the federal funds. The risk, he said, is that the nonprofits may never get that money in from the feds. Then the city would really be put in a bind. But Gerdes was in favor of the idea.
Gina Driscoll (district 6) talked about the city paying for food assistance because supposedly food banks don’t have enough reserves to handle the number of SNAP recipients that could be affected if the shutdown lasts into March. But she didn’t even have a basic knowledge of how many residents of the city of Saint Petersburg depend on SNAP. Why can’t she just organize a fund-raising/food raising drive with voluntary funds? Why impact that city’s general fund?
Amy Foster (district 8) made a good note that a lot of nonprofits are practically wholly dependent on tax dollars, using government entities for their three largest donors. The primary tenant for the new Pier, Tampa Bay Watch, is in that boat, with most of its other funding sources being monopolies protected from competition by the government, like Duke Energy. She floated the idea of trying to get these nonprofits to be less dependent on governments, but didn’t mention lowering taxes to make more money available to individuals who might be more charitably inclined.
Next BF&T meeting is February 14. Lovely day to talk taxation.
The next committee was Public Services & Infrastructure (PS&I) to discuss the potential changes to the noise ordinance. Gerdes expressed a mind numbing disappointment that restaurant type establishments weren’t “policing their own” with regard to noise nuisance repeat offenders. It appears that Charlie Gerdes has never run a small business before. It doesn’t matter what you say to your competitors, if they think they gain an edge with customers over you, they are going to do it, regardless of what you say. That’s why we have governments–to punish people when they do evil to other people. That’s not what businesses are for.
And, yes, playing music so loud at night that your neighbors can’t sleep is doing evil. Unfortunately, the city intends to collect the fine, not transmit it to the victims.
Speaking of fines, the proposal is to give a written warning for the first offence, a $500 fine for the second, another $500 fine for the third, and to suspend applicable business licenses for the fourth offence that occurs within a year. I couldn’t tell if they meant calendar year or twelve months from the first offence.
Suspended licensees are able to appeal the suspensions under this ordinance. Staff recommended that the city go to court against serious repeat offenders to have any revocation established. Steve Kornell suggested that suspension appeals should actually come to city council first.
Elizabeth Abernathy, Director of Planning and Development Services for the City of Saint Petersburg, listed new regulations designed to prevent noise nuisances. Councilmember Amy Foster pointed out that restaurants won’t be applying for the supposedly required permits to add speakers if they know they also have to provide a noise mitigation plan. She cited Queen’s Head as an example of businesses simply allowing performers to bring whatever equipment they choose for the night, including a variety of speaker numbers and sizes, varying with each performer. No establishment is going to apply for new permission for every event.
Abernathy tried to say that the electrical lines required to support any new sound equipment would require a permit, because it is illegal to lay electrical lines without one. But Foster’s example hadn’t occurred to her. I guess she needs to get out more. In any case, she admitted under pressure from Foster that, regardless of the regulations, the first notice that the city government would have of any noise/amplification changes would likely be complaints by neighbors, not applications for permits by the businesses.
In a rare moment of fiscal conservatism, the police department reassured the committee that no new resources would be needed to accommodate the new changes should they be implemented. Gina Driscoll also wanted reassurance that the police officers assigned to respond to noise complaints would approach the businesses in a more neighborly manner than a hostile manner. A deputy chief of the police department assured her that this is the plan.
The one change they didn’t make is to move from subjective hearing levels to objective measures in decibels. No explanation was given for the rejection of that direction in this meeting, but I imagine that it had to do with the cost of purchasing and deploying the equipment with which to measure the decibel levels.
The next committee to meet was the Health, Energy, Resiliency, and Sustainability Committee (HERS). Darden Rice (district 4) will continue to act as chair, and Gina Driscoll will now act as vice chair. That became important as the meeting went on.
City Sustainability Director Sharon Wright gave a report on tree planting programs. The city has planted almost 450 trees along 4 miles in five different corridors around the city. The trees will be maintained by the city for the first two years. After that, the private property owners will be responsible for maintaining and trimming them–or rather for paying arborists to do it for them. The city requires licenses for that kind of stuff. Considering that they planted some of these trees in poorer neighborhoods, that doesn’t sound like this was a very generous thing to do. “Here, your taxes are being used to pay for an additional maintenance burden for you overtaxed and poverty-stricken home owners whose bodies have begun to fail them after finally paying off your home.”
Wright continued that the city officials had discussed different ways to accomplish the long range plans for having trees in the city and had settled on (surprise, surprise) adding a bureaucratic position within city staff. Driscoll immediately objected, saying that the City Beautiful Commission was well equipped to handle this sort of thing and, being an all volunteer organization, without any additional cost to the city. Wright, Rice, and Deputy Mayor Dr. Tamika Tomalin stated that they wanted “authority” behind the position, in order to compel compliance with the long range goals. A volunteer organization doesn’t fit that bill, though the city staff might find other ways to make them feel useful. If that sounds patronizing to you, that’s because that’s exactly how it sounded to me. I didn’t get to ask Driscoll how she felt.
At this point, Montanari, the alternate committee member who nominated Driscoll for vice chair basically because no one else was in the room until Gerdes came in after the vote, asked to see some photos from the progress of the tree program. Wright was clearly unprepared for that part, because her slideshow only included one tree in one picture of a collage she put together of the 18th Ave South tree project (yes, the one in the poorer neighborhoods). She featured the trash pickup they had done in conjunction with the tree planting celebration in the other photos.
Now, we’ve all heard from the council members how important affordable housing is, right? I mean, that was the main thrust of BF&T was to get funding sources for housing subsidies. In the middle of a housing scarcity, why would people oppose new development? Well, in Darden Rice’s case, at least one reason is to protect trees. There is a grand oak tree on a now vacant lot where a developer tore down the old expansive structure to build two houses in its place. He feels that he needs to cut the tree down to make things work for potential buyers, and Rice not only lamented that city code doesn’t stop him, she also said that she might go sit in that tree to keep him from cutting it down. So much for alleviating the housing shortage…
At this point, Rice actually had to leave the meeting to tend to her obligations to PSTA, where she is a board member (most council members are also members of other government boards). So now Driscoll with no warning or experience got to chair the rest of the meeting. She seemed to do well.
Wright mentioned that the plans for energy efficiency and retrofitting would cost about $5M to implement, and listed other projects totaling another $1M. Montanari was concerned that this would blow an even bigger hole in the $13.5M gap discussed at the Committee of the Whole regarding budget priorities for fiscal year 2020. Tomalin explained that this was one of the items that affected the apparent gap as presented.
Next was a report on the straw ban. Charlie Gerdes acted shocked at how bitterly some people were taking it and mentioned that he preferred better marketing than calling it a straw ban, seeing that the policy is actually request only for the first twelve months. Wright, however, reported that fast food chains had actually called in to the Office of Sustainability and Resiliency to get guidance on compliance. No indication was given that anyone took responsibility for the unnecessary creation of hostilities that lead to the attack at the McDonald’s on the Southside. I guess they just expect people to ignore the role the straw ban played in that incident.
The last meeting of the day was a Committee of the Whole regarding potential changes to regulations for redevelopment in coastal high hazard areas, hereafter referred to as CHHA. In 2016, the definition of CHHA was changed, increasing the number of places within the city of Saint Petersburg that fall under that designation. City code forbids city staff and city council to approve changes to the future land use map and comprehensive masterplan that would increase the allowable density of any area within a CHHA. Now, as stated in a previous quasi-judicial hearing, allowable density is not the same as actual density. A developer may build to less than what is allowable. He may even build to the same density as before. But, if it is a substantially different kind of structure (think mobile home versus apartment complex or single family homes), then the density limitations on the future land use map change, and the city code prohibits a change to greater density allowed, whether the intent is to build to greater density or not (it usually is).
In the end, the council members all seemed willing to change the ordinance to allow for greater density in CHHA, so long as several conditions are met, some of them mandatory and others in balance. They didn’t specify what conditions they want as mandatory, but they instructed staff to look further into the matter. And they took about an hour to come to that conclusion, because the conversation kept meandering into the specifics despite what was said to be a report by which staff hoped to get instruction. Several council members were reluctant to look into the changes without reassurances about what the potential outcomes might be.
Staff said that they can report back within 6 months on the framework of an ordinance. Then they will need to submit it to several agencies at the state and federal level for approval. Then they will need to actually have the debate on how and whether to change the ordinance officially. The process can take 18 months to two years, during which time we may see a decrease in development efforts.
I didn’t get to see if the Saint Petersburg Housing Authority will be part of the Committee of the Whole meeting next week, but I’ll definitely be there to find out. This has been Saint Petersburg Florida Area News, a production of the Reconstructionist Radio Network.