St. Pete residents defend neighborhoods from police HQ funding

Monday's public forum in front of the St. Petersburg City Council over the funding of a future police headquarters, St. Pete's latest civic headache, brought a passionate crowd out, upset with what they felt was the misuse of the funds that should be intended for neighborhood projects.

The move prompting the forum was city official's plans to take $4.77 million from the referendum approved Penny for Pinellas fund, which covers capital improvements in the county, and put it towards the funding of the headquarters. The police headquarters, a major aspect of the 2007 referendum campaign, is currently without a plan but will be estimated to cost between $40 and $68 million.

Largely represented by the People's Budget Review, members of the audience spent two hours making clear that while they understand the need for a new headquarters, it should not come at the expense of the more community focused initiatives.

"I would like to express our strong opposition against this council's proposal to take roughly 4 million from funds meant for neighborhoods, local recreation projects, and cultural facilities, to be used for the construction of a new police facility,” said Louis Brown. “This transfer will further reduce the balances of both the neighborhood and citywide infrastructure and recreations project funds, which have suffered sharply reduced revenues as a result of the recession … As with any budget decision this is a matter of priorities. In the past two years, thousands of residents have made their vision and values in St. petersburg known and they are expressed time and time again, the longing for critical investments into our neighborhoods and into our youth. This decision, if it is approved, does not represent that vision. In fact it is turning a deaf ear on two years of unprecedented public engagement to this body and dialogue on the future of our city.”

Brown and other members of the People's Budget Review pointed out projects covered by Penny for Pinellas that could be scrapped due to the transfer of funds, including the acquisition of property for new affordable housing, street-scaping, landscaping and green-scaping for neighborhoods, recreation center improvements and enhancements, library additions, improvements and replacements, the Chiles Park corridor, the arts maintenance program, improving streets, roads, sidewalks and ramps, storm water drainage improvements, improvements of pedestrian walkways and bike lanes, historical renovations and new park facilities and playground equipment.

While the audience was in a clear majority of opposition towards the diversion of funds, there were some who felt that the new headquarters was necessary.

“While we owe the residents to respond to the People's Budget Review,” said one woman who CL was unable to identify, "the referendum where we promised the voters that we would support a police headquarters I think is a greater obligation. Most of the speakers who have gotten up so far say they do not oppose building a police department and certainly for the fourth largest city in the state of Florida, we have an obligation to the public safety of our citizens. We have fine officers sitting over here. I'm sure if they had the opportunity to speak, they would also voice the opinion that they need the resources to do their job.”

There was also the opinion that this topic should be delayed until 2014, when newly elected Mayor Rick Kriseman and city council members Darden Rice and Amy Foster will join the discussion. This was echoed by former city council candidate and current member of the Rick Kriesman transition team Lorraine Margeson.

“The proposed transfer of funding away from the neighborhood parks, arts and culture to find money for the new police headquarters is an absolutely hard proposition and I urge you to vote no on the strongest terms,” said Margeson. “The neighborhoods have suffered enough these last few years at the hands of this current city government. I have said time and time again, while on the campaign trail, that it is time for the neighborhoods to be supported once again by their own city government. What makes this idea even more astounding is that you don't even know what plan you will use going forward on the police station. How do you even know that you will need this extra money? … The simple fact is neither you or the citizens have a final plan for a police headquarters. There needs to be more thought regarding a final plan and at this late stage in the game for this current administration, it seems only wise to wait for January second, with our new electives, as well as transition recommendations. Just vote no.”

Reactions from the council members were mixed. Some members, such as Karl Nurse and Wengay Newton, agreed with the audience and voiced displeasure at how the issue had arisen, with blame levied at both Mayor Bill Foster and his predecessor Rick Baker.

“If you're going to make that decision [on funding the headquarters], you ought to do it the other way around,” said Nurse “Take a look at the building, decide what you're going to build and then say we are going to make that decision, not we're going to move the money today and then we'll take a look at it. … To me I think that the bottom line is that, while I understand that we need a new police headquarters, that would not have as much of an impact on the rest of our city, whereas if you shift $4.75 million to the neighborhood, city wide structure and rec programs and the rest of it, that has a real impact.”

Supporters of the fund transfer included Bill Dudley, who compared the quality of the current police headquarters to one found in a third world country, and Steve Kornell.

“When you go to a political referendum and you don't do what you tell voters you're going to do, that's problematic,” said Kornell. “I don't see how I do that and then go face them.”

Despite the People's Budget Review's pressure, the council eventually approved a motion that would allocate an additional $3.1 million towards the headquarters, a motion submitted by Council Member Charlie Gerdes that was considered a compromise from the $4.77 million. The council is expected to decide on a plan in 2014.


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