Bankruptcy. False courage. Sewage. These were the watchwords last night as the St. Petersburg City Council preened with mock outrage at the still ongoing raw sewage discharge into Tampa Bay. They patted themselves on the back for their “courage” in raising utility rates to solve the problems left by “their predecessors”. But as always they ignored the evidence of the defacto city bankruptcy that they directly caused and that led this calamitous failure of basic government services. The facts are simple: 1) the City closed the Albert Whitted Sewage Plant in 2015. 2) Shortly thereafter they have had at least three events where they were forced to dump tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Tampa Bay Estuary. 3) In April 2016, their expensive consultant told them they needed to add sewage plant capacity – about a $70-90 million project. 4) For years the city has refused to properly manage their budget – wasting tens of millions of dollars every year that could have been saved for this project. 5) For years the City has mis-prioritized its actions towards unneeded piers and baseball stadiums, liberal “social justice” projects, political patronage programs and a bloated, unnecessary city workforce. What the citizens of St. Petersburg are witnessing are the early symptoms of an emerging city bankruptcy from years of mismanagement that has made the city government a non-functional joke and is actually harming its own citizens and their environment.
Closing the Albert Whitted Sewage Plant – the First Big Mistake.
In 2015, the City Council closed down the Albert Whitted Sewage Plant known by the acronym AWWRF (Albert Whitted Water Reclamation Facility). This was after they had spent $34 million to build pumps and pipes to move the sewage south to the Southwest sewage plant (SWWRF) next to the Eckerd College campus. This was based on claims that the closure of the Albert Whitted plant would save utility rate payers $32 million over 20 years. The decision to close the plant was made in 2011 after the plant was allegedly found to be unable to meet certain standards for reclaimed water decontamination as part of approval of injection wells that were permitted at the time. (The AWWRF property has two of the city’s ten reclaimed water injection wells- underground storage of reclaimed water that is later pulled out for pumping to reclaimed water customers). Mike Connors, City Public Works Administrator at the time, advised the city that it would be too expensive to upgrade the AWWRF to meet the water decontamination standards allegedly imposed on as described in his memo to the City Council. (However the replacement cost was estimated at $29 million whereas building the sewage piping and pumping system to transfer to SWWRF was at $34 million).
In February of 2011 when the Council voted to close the site. In 2011, current City Council members Jim Kennedy, Karl Nurse voted to close the plant with Current member Kornell voting against it, predicting the overflow of sewage (along with Wengay Newton). In August 2015, (the same year after the Albert Whitted was taken off line) the city experienced its first massive dump of sewage into Tampa Bay, over 15 million gallons worth. In June 2016, during Tropical storm colin, the city dumped nearly ten million gallons into the bay. Today, 8 1/2 days worth of sewage dumping ended, totaling about 20 million gallons reportedly following Hurricane Hermine. Last year following the first major sewage dump, Mayor Kriseman stated:
“Not to throw Tampa under the bus, but … they’re going to spend a lot of money on their infrastructure because they haven’t been doing what we’ve been doing for a number of years,” Kriseman said. “We didn’t have raw sewage and fecal matter floating down our streets and into people’s homes like cities all around us. We’re in a lot better shape.”
Kriseman is singing a different song now – no longer bragging about how they have been spending money on “infrastructure” and instead blaming anything and anyone else that moves, especially his “predecessors”.
Mismanaging the budget – the Second Big and Ongoing Mistake.
In April 2016, the city received a report from a consultant it paid to determine how to handle excess sewage flow during heavy, wet weather (following the August 2015 tropical storm that led to the first 15 million gallon dump). The report indicated that the best approach to stop the sewage dumping required two action items: 1) line the underground pipes that allow leakage in from the rain-soaked ground and 2) add tens of millions of gallons of capacity to the sewage plants. The estimate for the best new capacity addition was for $77-94 million. They indicated it would cost $2.8 million to do the best study to evaluate which of the 1,000 miles of pipes to manage. That’s just the study!
It is clear that a credible solution requires tens of millions of dollar. The city generally receives and spends about $480 and $450 million per year. In 2013 they had about $80 million in excess reserves (above that required by law). The city council has been warned repeatedly by Sunbeam Times Editor Dr. David McKalip about their out of control pension and retiree health benefits. Re-organizing the budget and prioritizing toward basic service was the main theme of the McKalip campaign for City council in 2013. The city council however has continued to give raises, improve union benefits and ignore the unfunded nature of its retirement benefits for years. When the facts are pointed out Council members like Charlie Gerdes usually respond with vitriol and political puffery.
The politicians often like to talk about saving reserves and managing moneys for a “rainy day”. A simple example of the failure to properly spend the people’s money for actual “rainy day” events can be seen in the continued escalation of taxpayer payouts to retirees. In 2015, the city paid out $62 million to retired workers for their health benefits. They had no savings to do this, and their unfunded liability has gone up to $204.9 million – representing 143% of the payroll of all active workers in the city government! The trend has been devastating, rising from about a $10.1 million payout in 2008, to the current $62 million level. Yet the City Council and Mayor – die-hard, union friendly progressives- refuse to alter the basic weakness in our city budget: the drain by union benefits after retirement. This is the sort of problem that has caused other cities like Detroit to go bankrupt and Flint Michigan to make bad decisions on water sources to save money and instead fund union payouts. This $62 million is in addition to retiree pensions and the total payouts from the city each year to retirees is in the range of about $120-160 million per year recently.
Proper management of the budget would have made keeping the Albert Whitted plant open an easy task.
Misplaced Priorities – the third big mistake.
Not only has the city refused to stop the bleeding from its excessive government worker benefits, the politicians in charge have also been ignoring the proper priorities. The role of our local government should start with public safety (police/fire), utilities (water/sewer/sanitation) and roads. Yet the politicians want a new pier for about $50 million. The political class want to spends tens of millions on a new baseball stadium after already bleeding tens of millions on the Ray stadiums for two decades. They handout patronage money in the southside redevelopment area to garner votes (even getting caught trying to give tax dollars to the Democrat HQ!). They spend millions putting planters into streets, and closing traffic lanes downtown to intentionally slow traffic due to their car-hatred. The city council pushes a money losing recycling program, pulling money out of public works while raising rates for customers. They waste city staff time on social justice crusades like “socially responsible investing” for pension funds, “wage theft”, transgender rights, forced hiring of felons by city contractors and more. They allows millions to be wasted on code enforcement and historic district crusades that involve 13 year fights to take a way a carport from a citizen! Just last night they approved $275,000 to pay a consultant to tell them how to spend even more money on redeveloping “the Dueces” (22nd st south) – throwing good money after bad given the Sylvia’s debacle.
In short the progressive politicians – liberals and “republican” alike – see the city as their personal re-election and social crusade platform. Ribbon cutting ceremonies for a new dog park or a street beautification project are sexy and get votes. Spending time and money to make sure we have a big enough sewage plant is not so sexy.
Politician and Bureaucrat Fingers Point Everywhere But at Themselves
At the 9/8/16 St. Pete City Council Meeting each council member expressed outrage at the sewage dumps into our bay. Council Chair Amy Foster said it was “unacceptable” and then to be more dramatic, repeated how “unacceptable” it was. Mayor Kriseman and new council member Wheeler-Brown tried to pin this on two prior predecessors (implying it was the fault of republican mayors Baker and Foster). While Baker and Foster did indeed ignore budget problems and misprioritize for year, they are not the keys who are at fault. Mayor Kriseman actually pointed to a 62 million gallon sewage dump in 1999. He was on the Council from 2000-2006 and knew about it, so why did Kriseman take no action then? Why did Kriseman prioritize union retiree benefits over proper city budgeting? Councilman Nurse actually had the unmitigated gall to say that their vote to approve higher taxes was an act of courage. Testifying at the meeting as the sole opponent of the utility rate hike, yours truly advised them that raising utility fees again was an act of cowardice. The act of courage would be cutting spending, ending ribbon cutting ceremonies and taking on the bloated union benefits. Instead we are now seeing the end result of regular utility rate hikes: a 142% increase since 1999 for water and sewage alone!
The bureaucrats also seemed to imply the main problem was the leaky sewer pipes into the city. Public works Administrator Claude Tankersly dramatically held up a green 8 inch pipe and stated there were 1,000 miles of them underground. They need lining to stop the saturated ground from draining water into them during heavy rain storms. Yet he doesn’t know how many need it since the city has in fact been spending millions on them for years to line them internally and stop leaks. In fact, the December 2011 Connors memo** bragged as follows about how the SWWRF facility could handle the excess Whitted sewage, describing “reduced flows from groundwater infiltration and stormwater inflow resulting from improved maintenance of the wastewater collection system.” (**Note 9/15/16: the original link to this city memo was lost and I believe there was an effort to remove the document by the city. However, the city now has this memo here at a new link).
It is clear the politicians are lying. They have mismanaged the budget, made bad decisions on closing the Albert Whitted Sewage plant and have prioritized their own political goals over that of the function of the city. It is clear that the bureaucrats are squirming and deceiving on the needed solutions and look forward to the additional money from the utility bill hike so they can hire even more workers. That means even more union benefits. It is also clear that the politicians and political class have long wanted to get rid of that “unsightly” impediment to their re-development and other dreams for years – the Albert Whitted Sewage plant. That political priority has taken precedent over good budget management and common sense.
The city is seeing its emerging bankruptcy resulting from the abusive political class of St. Petersburg. The most dramatic early symptom is the repeated dumping of sewage into our ecological treasure, Tampa Bay. There will be more disasters that emerge until the citizens demand new leadership that priorities citizens over the political class.
Editors note: An Earlier draft version was inadvertently posted and has now been updated two hours after the original post.