City Budget Passes, Sewers Top Priority

Gulfport City Council, at the regular meeting on September 20, unanimously approved the $11.46 million operating budget.

The new budget will begin October 1, 2016 and end September 30, 2017. For the same time period, the council also approved a millage rate of 4.039 for the general operation of the city. The proposed rate will generate approximately $3.09 million in ad valorem revenue.

“The biggest issue and the one that’s been our focus for the last two years is all the infrastructure money that we budgeted,” said Mayor Sam Henderson. “All the things that are wearing out have to stop with us. The ones I’m most excited about are sewers and roads. Not the sexiest things in the world, but they’re important.”

Councilmember Christine Brown agreed that sewers are top priority. We have “50-year-old sewers. Nobody thought about them for the first 45 years,” she said. “The councils before us kicked the can down the road. I’m excited about the work that we’re going to be putting in underground.”

Brown said she’s also excited about phase two of the waterfront project along Shore Boulevard that will mean a new boardwalk between William’s Pier and the Casino.

“It will finish up the whole waterfront and a lot of it is using Penny for Pinellas money,” she said. “It’s pretty and it’s good for everyone in the community, which is nice.”

Vice Mayor Michael Fridovich agreed that the sewer system and roads continue to be top priorities. New projects would include “the Tomlinson Park [Complex] exercise equipment and children’s play area, and hopefully we’ll get the grant for the mooring fields,” he said. The complex is located at 19th Ave. S. and 54th Ave. S.

“When it comes to our top priorities, [people] can just look at where we are spending the money,” said Councilmember Dan Liedtke. “We’re spending $700,00 this year on sewers. Most of our budget is made up with [monies for] public safety [related to] police and fire, and infrastructure.”

Personnel costs make up “over 50 percent of our budget,” said Councilmember Yolanda Roman. “We need to look at that very carefully especially with regard to increases in insurance and disability [benefits]. This is something that goes on watch and I think we can do a better job to see how we are on target or not on target for cost savings there. On the flip side, I’m all about infrastructure be it the sewers, be it the water or be it the buildings. What I keep on hearing is, ‘Is there a little bit more that we can stretch out for sewers?’”

New information regarding sewer priorities and repair progress has been posted on the city’s website. Visit mygulfport.us/waterquality.

“I hope as the year progresses, [people are] going to enjoy seeing how we spent this money to improve the city,” said Henderson.

Taking Care of an Inherited Sewer Problem

“We are leading by example,” Henderson said. “We’re the ones taking care of [the sewer system] problem and are tasked with fixing it after it’s been ignored for 25 years.” Sewer systems throughout Tampa Bay region are at their end of life and are often overtaxed during extraordinary rain events and storms.

During the Pinellas County legislative fact-finding session on September 20, Henderson said officials reported that more than 238 million gallons of untreated and partially treated wastewater has been dumped into Tampa Bay and other area waterways so far this year.

“That puts Pinellas County at more for this year than what each of the last three years totaled statewide,” he said.

Gulfport’s share of the 2016 county total is less than 0.5 percent, he said.

“We’re the ones that committed to this before August 2015 when sewers became the hot topic,” said Henderson. “These things have to be done in phases, and I’m looking forward to getting it done in the next five years.”

In August 2015, an “extraordinary” rainstorm occurred in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties that caused area sanitary sewer pumping stations to be overwhelmed. In St. Petersburg, this led officials to release raw sewage into Clam Bayou, a 170-acre estuary located between St. Petersburg and Gulfport, to prevent portions of St. Petersburg from flooding, said Mary Yeargan, director of the southwest district for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“I get frustrated when I hear excuses and I hear climate change,” said State Rep. Kathleen Peters at the county session, according to saintpetersblog.com. Some cities, she said, had neglected their duty to keep up with infrastructure improvements. As an example, Peters referred to the Penny for Pinellas. That tax, she said, was to improve infrastructure, yet very few projects had to do with improving cities’ sewer systems. In a county that worries about tropical weather and potential hurricanes, making sure wastewater and storm water systems are ready for such rain events should be an easy call. Instead, the money is often spent on other projects, she said.

“I want to commend Gulfport for taking a step years ago to put yourself in a position to represent less than 0.5 percent of the spillage that occurred,” said State Rep. Darryl Rouson at Tuesday’s council meeting. “It’s a testament to your foresight.”

Overheard at the September 20, 2016 Gulfport City Council Meeting:

“I cannot in good conscience attend. It is ironic that the same city [that] avoided accountability to Gulfport after the Clam Bayou sewage discharge will come to Gulfport for a clean up.” – Councilperson Yolanda Roman regarding the October 1 49th Street Mayor’s Cleanup when the leaders from St. Petersburg and Gulfport will meet for an early morning of community service.

“I am, absolutely, since it’s part of my gig, going to the mayor’s clean up on 49th Street South.” (laughter from the room) “I know when you don’t get along with somebody, you still go to Thanksgiving and have dinner like family. I’m still going to attend and I hope you will as well.” – Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson in response to Roman.

“I saw some beautiful oak trees coming down around our Marina District, I thought ‘Oh, this isn’t right.’ So, I started talking to a lot of people. And, we formed a group called Gulfport Matters.” – Christine Crosby

“What we want to do through this group is to help residents have a voice with the council and with other stakeholders, other business people in the community to have a voice and say, ‘What kind of community do we want?’ With that in mind, we would ask the council and the mayor to please consider a moratorium on new commercial development until that process could be put into place.” – Crosby’s husband, Jonathan.

“Several weeks ago, now, I spoke with Mayor Henderson. And, it was specifically about the new building on Beach Boulevard. And, as he said, it’s a little late to put the brakes on it because it’s totally in conformity with the codes.” – Gerry O’Regan on the city’s commercial development process.

“Those were codes that were made [by] council 20 years ago. When these were put in place, those were the kind of developments they were looking for. I think now, we might have reached that apex where maybe things are getting a little too big and we’re worried about losing little Gulfport. So, there’s some discussions we need to have.” – Henderson

“We are trying to start this program up again to advertise all of the businesses on Gulfport Boulevard. We love the beach, but Gulfport Boulevard – we feel a little bit left out.” – Patricia Williams-Preaster, owner of Healing Touch, on the topic of business promotion along Gulfport Boulevard. She and over 30 other business owners have planned an event called the First Gulfport Extravaganza Crawl on November 4 and 5 from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. It will start at the tax office on 49th St. S. and extend to Regions Bank at 58th St. S.

“I’m here once again, believe it or not; it’s such a miniscule thing and you’re tired of hearing about it, but it’s been going on a year. The dog park water fountain is still broken. It’s hot, you know. We bring our own water. It’s just ridiculous. You know, maintain something you put in there. We’re so appreciative [the city is] doing such a great job on the lawn. We can at least find the droppings. You know, that’s been cut on a regular basis. So, we appreciate that.” – Barbara Helman on the topic of the small dog water fountain at the Gulfport Dog Park. Henderson replied that they would get the fountain fixed “quick.”

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