On August 3, Gulfport City Council met for less than two hours, including a 10-minute recess. Mayor Sam Henderson was absent and Vice Mayor April Thanos led the meeting. Council discussed water/sewer rate increases and other budgeting issues, along with growing concerns for the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, while approving events and dropping a utility payment fee for some.
Council Responds to Growing Covid Concerns
Throughout the night council discussed how best to handle the surge in COVID-19 cases thanks to the more contagious delta variant. Resident and Gulfport Senior Center Foundation office manager Amy Oatley was the first to raise concerns during the public comment, asking council to “show courage again, and stand up for what’s right by adopting a citywide mask ordinance for indoor spaces and outdoor crowds.”
City Manager Jim O’Reilly explained that the city no longer had the power to implement orders such as mask ordinances due to Governor Ron DeSantis’ executive order overriding local government COVID restrictions.
“We can recommend, and that’s pretty much where we’re at,” O’Reilly said.
Councilmember Michael Fridovich spoke much more bluntly, saying, “Basically, the governor doesn’t care whether you live or die, and he’s totally ignoring what’s going on in Florida while he runs around the country trying to improve his national image.”
Later in the meeting, council discussed launching a public awareness campaign to urge more residents to be vaccinated, something that was proposed at the previous meeting. Councilmember Christine Brown spoke against the idea, saying, “You can’t listen to anything in the car, or see anything on the internet, or look at anything on the TV without it being a COVID message, so I’m not in favor of spending $20,000 to send more COVID messages out there. I think there’s enough.”
Fridovich concurred, saying, “I agree with Christine: If by now if you haven’t figured out that you need your shots, and you’re not wearing your mask in public, then… I’m not spending $20,000 on stupidity.”
Other members of the council agreed, along with several members of the public, and the vote failed unanimously.
In one of the few pandemic precautions freely available to the city, council agreed during closing comments to allow residents to resume call-in attendance via Zoom for the next city council meeting. Of particular concern was the expected volume of speakers who might come forward to discuss the vote on changes to the noise ordinance.
Sewage, Water and Garbage Rates Increase
In quick succession council introduced and passed a series of ordinances that collectively increase the municipal water rate by 8%, the sewage rate by 8%, the garbage and recycling rate by 6% and the stormwater rate by $1 per month.
“Nobody wants to raise the water rates, but we have to do it every year because St. Pete raises our rates,” explained Brown, referencing the city’s agreement with the City of St. Petersburg. Council hopes to reevaluate the tier system at a later date so that residents who use less than 2,000 gallons a month are not forced to pay the current minimum cost.
As for garbage and recycling, council expressed a desire to adopt measures that give residents more options and incentives to reduce their waste, such as allowing them to use a smaller roadside trash can for a reduced rate.
Council Drops the Utility Fee – for Some
Council voted to eliminate the $3.25 convenience fees for utility payments made with a credit or debit card, both online and in person. The move will mean a roughly $30,000 annual loss, but the city expects the switch will encourage more people to pay online, reducing the time burden on city employees and the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Residents who pay by phone, however, will still be charged $3.25 for credit or debit card payments – a decision resident Margaret Tober claimed discriminated against the very elderly and the disabled who rely on phone payments.
“Do you think those kinds of people can step into the office to make a payment? How heartless can you be?” Tober said. While Thanos dissented, the vote passed, prompting Tober to say she had “never seen so much heartlessness” before leaving the room. Tober later returned and apologized to council for the outburst.
The Events Go On
Council approved its annual calendar of single-day events for the upcoming year – August 2021 to September 2022 – including the Gecko Ball at the Casino on August 28, the 20th annual Gecko Fest on September 4, and the delayed 4th of July fireworks show, also on September 4. While the city cannot require attendees to wear masks, council stated that it would strongly suggest organizers require or request a return to mask-wearing for the events.
Council approved a $30,000 contract with Adams Construction to replace the Gulfport Casino dock’s wooden decking with plastic decking, and to replace 38 pilings. Council also formed an Auditor Selection Committee to seek out and recommend auditors for the city to use for its annual financial audit. The committee is made up of Councilmember Brown, City Attorney Andrew Salzman and City of Indian Rocks Beach Finance Director Dan Carpenter. The vote passed, however Councilmember Thanos dissented, wanting to add a local accountant or two to the committee before approval.
Overheard at the August 3 Gulfport City Council Meeting
“I want to promote the fact that the city will be hosting a Pinellas County Health Department… COVID-19 vaccine program this Saturday from 9 to 2 at the Casino. There’ll be vaccines available to anyone who comes. On our website we have the contact information for the health department if you have any questions.” – City Manager Jim O’Reilly. More at mygulfport.us.
“We are a community of gardeners! Let’s do something to encourage people to compost their kitchen and yard waste. Providing compost bins, something St. Petersburg has been doing for years, will put tons of valuable nutrients back into the ground, instead of into Pinellas County solid waste facilities.” – Caron Schwartz, suggesting ideas to improve Gulfport trash and recycling, including reducing trash pickup to once per week.