Mooring Field Gets Budget Support, Council Responds on Stetson Allegations

At the Gulfport City Council meeting on Tuesday, August 15 council members discussed two pressing fiscal matters: the 2017-18 fiscal year budget and efforts to scale back expenditures on events.

When City Manager Jim O’Reilly presented his budget proposal in July, a mooring field and bay management project for Boca Ciega Bay was among the new items identified for potential funding that required input and direction from council. In February this year, council members unanimously approved a $350,000 funding package for the project, which has been in the works for years, as Ward 3 Councilmember Christine Brown pointed out Tuesday evening.

“Mooring field – yes,” she said, signaling her support for the project to move ahead. Addressing O’Reilly, she added, “That mooring field, since your daughter was born, has been on the table – and she’s 18 now.”

It hasn’t been quite that long, as Ward 4 Councilmember Michael Fridovich pointed out, but it has been on the radar for at least a decade. The city first began seriously looking into the implementation of a mooring field in 2006 and has since spent more than $100,000 studying it, Fridovich said, adding his support for the project to be funded in the 2017-18 budget.

If implemented, supporters say a mooring field would help deal with the problem of boats anchoring near the city’s waterfront and polluting the inshore waters when they don’t properly use their onboard sanitation facilities.

Mayor Sam Henderson also expressed his support for the mooring field, which would require an allocation of $50,000 in city funds. Ward 3 Councilmember Yolanda Roman said she was fine with that expenditure – an outlay that would be supplemented with $100,000 in funding from Pinellas County BP settlement funds and some $78,000 from Gulfport’s BP settlement funds.

The mooring field funding package is also expected to include $40,000 in grant monies from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Clean Vessel Act program administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The remaining balance of the funding is slated to come from a grant from the Florida Boating Improvement Program. With funding and council support in place, O’Reilly said he will bring forth a budget amendment concerning the mooring field at the September 5 council meeting.

Vice Mayor and Ward 1 Councilmember Dan Liedtke didn’t explicitly support or oppose the mooring field project, or any other specific project in the budget proposal; instead, he said he would back anything that helped advance a couple of key categories.

“Anything related to safety or infrastructure would go to the top of my list,” Liedtke said.

One such project – the construction of a new sidewalk on the east side of 59th St. S., between 22nd Ave. S. and 27th Ave. S. – garnered the full support of the council, so residents in the area should look for that to become a reality. The project is expected to cost $42,000, according to O’Reilly’s budget discussion memo that accompanied the August 15 meeting agenda.

Special Events Under the Microscope

Turning to the other discussion item on Tuesday evening’s agenda, the council talked about ways to reduce city expenditures and in-kind services related to special events, which account for about 1 percent of the city’s $12.2 million annual budget.

“Council members would be remiss if they didn’t look at that,” O’Reilly said in an article published in the August 10 edition of the Gabber. “They wanted the ability to look deeper.”

Tuesday evening, they did just that.

Prevailing sentiment among the council was that the city might have overreached to some degree with the Gulfport Grand Prix powerboat races, a large-scale, weekend-long event in late April that shut down streets and tied up many city resources. Although the organizers of the event footed the bill for police and fire services, the city’s $11,347 in revenue generated by the Grand Prix was offset by $24,351.79 in total costs, according to Cultural Facilities Events Supervisor Justin Shea’s special events spreadsheet.

Costs associated with the Grand Prix included $8,856.26 to pay city staff members. Fridovich expressed frustration with how much the city is spending to provide personnel for special events.

“We need to find ways to offset this with more volunteers,” he said. “I was surprised at how much the Grand Prix cost us. I would hope that will come down if they come back next year.”

O’Reilly said it’s up to council to weigh the costs vs. benefits of large events like the Grand Prix, which have the potential to bring an ample supply of visitors, public awareness and economic activity to Gulfport.

“There are more than just financial impacts for some of these events,” he said.

“I’ve got a problem with these numbers,” Henderson said, referring to city expenditures for special events. “I think we try to be too big for a small town. Maybe we need to focus on smaller events – they suit us better. I’m not saying we can’t step out of the box every now and then, but I think we learned a lot of lessons from the Grand Prix this year.”

In addition to Fridovich’s idea about organizations providing more of their own volunteers for events, other ideas included charging more for use of the volleyball courts and requiring a $50 fee to be paid for every special-event application, regardless of whether the event is approved.

Council Hits Back at Stetson Allegations

Tuesday’s meeting also included, during open public comment time, a presentation of a petition signed by 60 residents opposing Stetson University College of Law’s proposal to close a portion of 61st St. S., between 13th Ave. S. and 15th Ave. S., to create a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare with footbridges. At the council’s previous meeting, on August 3, some residents lashed out at council members, accusing them of meeting in secret with Stetson officials to further develop the street-closure plan, which they say is tantamount to private theft of public property.

Mayor Henderson was absent from the August 3 meeting, and on Tuesday he addressed the controversy, offering apologies to his fellow council members and confirming that yes, there have been meetings with Stetson officials, but not in secret, he said, nor with any attempt to collude or conspire with Stetson to keep the plan from public view. In fact, he explained, the contact with Stetson involved requests for the school to make certain modifications to its plan that are required before council will even deem it acceptable to review.

Stetson has thus far failed to make the requested changes to its plan, meaning the process has pretty much ground to a halt, according to O’Reilly and City Attorney Andrew Salzman.

“I have heard nothing [from Stetson] for a long period of time,” Salzman said, addressing council. “They haven’t fixed [the issues]. That’s why you haven’t seen a proposal. There’s nothing to bring to you.”

O’Reilly echoed Salzman’s account. “We’ve asked them for very specific criteria,” said O’Reilly. “There’s nothing to tell you because there’s nothing going on.”

Unfortunately, Salzman added, “there were allegations thrown at council members that are unfair and untrue. We treat Stetson no differently than anyone else who wants to bring something to council.”

Roman was sympathetic toward the many residents opposed to Stetson’s plan, laying blame on the school for creating what she called a “confusing” and “frustrating” process.

“I don’t think folks mean to pick on us,” she said, “but we are their voice” in the matter.

The next city council meeting will take place on Tuesday, September 5, at 7 p.m. at city hall.

 

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