The May 4 Gulfport City Council meeting, the first back at city hall after an extended stay at the Catherine Hickman Theatre, finished in just under 90 minutes Tuesday night. With Mayor Sam Henderson absent, Vice Mayor April Thanos oversaw discussion of noise complaints, police reforms, and plans for improving transportation in Gulfport.
Council Plans to Mediate Noise Complaints
After weeks of increasing tension between the owners of the North End Taphouse on Beach Boulevard and local residents over the amount of noise coming from bands performing late at night, council has agreed to mediate between the two factions to find a compromise.
Two meetings prior, Kelly Wright, co-owner of the Taphouse, spoke before council and asked that they raise the decibel limit of the local noise ordinance, currently set at 65 decibels, so that bands could perform at the bar without incurring a police visit. Two weeks later, seven residents from the nearby area came to the following meeting to ask for the opposite: more restrictions on the volume and time at which bands could play, citing loud music easily heard in their homes past 11 p.m.
At the most recent meeting, Councilmember Christine Brown proposed a solution to the issue, requesting “a moratorium on the violations until we can get the two sides together” for mediation.
“I feel like there might be some bad blood going on and I’d like to bring the people together and see if we can find a compromise that works for everybody,” she explained.
Council agreed, and approved a two-week moratorium, effective Wednesday, May 5, on noise complaints in the area surrounding the Tap House to give Brown time to talk to the concerned parties and schedule a meeting where they can discuss their grievances and hopefully reach a compromise.
Police Chief Announces New Mental Health Initiative
Gulfport Police Chief Robert Vincent spoke before council to announce a new partnership with Directions For Living, a nonprofit organization that provides affordable counseling to those with mental health issues.
Under the new partnership, patrol officers who encounter someone undergoing a mental health episode can use a tablet provided by Directions For Living to instantly start a video call with a counselor to help talk the individual through their moment of crisis. The plan is to provide one tablet per police squad, and the costs of the tablets and counselors will be covered by Directions For Living, even if the tablet should be damaged or lost.
“In many of the cases where this is already being done, the officer has been able to leave without taking the person into protective custody just based on the reliance that there will be a follow-up meeting between the person and the provider,” Vincent said. “They’ve already done this as a pilot in Largo and Bellair, next is Gulfport and Clearwater. I’ve already tentatively agreed to do it with them; we should have it out in the field by the end of May.”
Council Discusses the Future of Transportation in Gulfport
A pair of car-related resolutions led to a rolling discussion of the types of transportation councilmembers wanted to see more of in Gulfport. The first resolution, which passed unanimously, authorizes Duke Energy to install a pair of electric vehicle charging stations at city hall. The stations, which Duke will install for free, are for city use, but will also be open for public use.
Councilmember Paul Ray expressed some reservations about the stations due to the low number of electric vehicles in the city’s fleet and in Gulfport in general, while Councilmember Thanos emphasized that one of the reasons the city passed on electric vehicles in the past was a lack of charging stations, and hoped this could be a first step to making that change.
Thanos later pressed this issue further during the discussion of the annual Capital Improvement Program budget, asking if the city could set an official policy to always look for electric alternatives when looking to replace old city vehicles, and choose them as long as they fit the needs of the city and aren’t too expensive. Council may discuss the proposal in the future.
The second resolution of the night asked council to consider approving a fuel tax increase proposed by the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners, adding one to five extra cents per gallon of fuel bought in Pinellas. Gulfport would receive less than one percent of the generated revenue, only approximately $9,000 per year, if the tax is approved.
“I’m not in favor of it. In this country, we get our roads fixed via taxation from gas… I’m also a firm believer that we should have light rail, and maybe if people start driving over potholes for a while maybe they’ll finally decide that we need light rail,” Councilmember Michael Fridovich said, prompting some laughs.
The other councilmembers agreed, believing that the traditional system of funding road improvements through fuel taxes is outdated, and there are more effective means of acquiring road improvement funds. Council voted down the resolution unanimously.
Overheard at City Council
“I just wanted to bring up that we are going to be having our youth sailing program coming up in June. It’s gonna be starting June 21, and it’s gonna go on to July 9. This is free to all kids, any kids that want to learn how to sail, we’ve been teaching kids for 35 years how to sail. We have eight more openings… it’s three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it starts at nine and goes on until noon.” – Richard Walters, Boca Ciega Yacht Club member, during public comment.
“The rest of us on city council would like to… make sure that everyone stays healthy, even though the governor doesn’t care if we live or die or get healthy, or doesn’t believe in science… I ask the businesses to continue what they’re doing with the masks, keep their mask ordinances, and put science before politics.” – Councilmember Michael Fridovich during his closing comments, responding to Governor Ron Desantis’ recent suspension of local COVID-19 ordinances, including the county mask mandate.
“Another thing that I wanted to bring up, which will be controversial maybe, is collections. We have significant outstanding collections, and I’m not talking about lien collections; this is just utility collections. I would like us to potentially have a presentation from the finance department, and maybe having somebody from a collection agency… to see whether we want to use a collection agent.” – Vice Mayor April Thanos during her closing comments. The proposal was discussed for a few minutes, and council agreed that they’d be open to discussing it in the future, but wanted to possibly wait until after the pandemic has passed so as not to pick an “insensitive” time to start collecting outstanding debts.