Gulfport Council Talks Budget, COVID-19

Screen Shot of the May 19 2020 Gulfport City Council Meeting

A screen shot of the virtual May 19, 2020 Gulfport City Council Meeting, including members of council, city manager, city attorney, city clerk and David Mather.

State Representative Jennifer Webb paid a virtual visit to Gulfport City Hall to talk about childhood hunger and unemployment Tuesday, May 20 during the regularly scheduled council meeting. 

The meeting, held via Zoom, a popular internet-based teleworking software, allowed councilmembers to conduct business as usual.  

In light of current social distancing measures, the City of Gulfport has made public meetings such as City Council available four different ways: Live stream on the city’s website, Gulfport TV 640 (Spectrum only); dial-in by phone and the Zoom app, which is available for PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone or Android devices. 

Virtual meetings will continue throughout the month of June. Council will reconsider in-person meetings depending on COVID-19 pandemic reports from the CDC. 

Webb reported that children throughout Pinellas County will not go hungry this summer. The Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger, an essential “Meals on Wheels” for kids, rolled out during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, initially meant to feed kids over the summer, was found to be especially needed these past 10 weeks. 

“We started eight-weeks ago with 50 children,” said Webb. “Now we help over 500 children throughout south and southwest Pinellas County.”

Webb thanked the City of Gulfport and the bus drivers who are donating their time to the effort. 

“We asked for a site to base the program and within two-hours [City Manager Jim] O’Reilly had the site to deploy the buses. We are blessed to be in a community where people get it.”

Webb encouraged people who know of any children or families in need of food assistance to please let them know about the program. 

“They don’t have to meet a certain income,” she said. “We’re here to feed kids and families who do not have transportation to school lunch sites or who fall into the high-risk CDC category because of illness.” (Read more here)

In addition to The Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger’s effort, the free breakfast and lunch at Boca Ciega High School has been extended through the end of July, according to Webb. 

“Florida applied for a waiver from the USDA,” explained Webb. “There is one gap week in the beginning of June that I’m working with the county to fill so that children and families can continue to go to the same site they’ve been going to all along.” 

Currently Feeding Tampa Bay is providing food for the program. The Pinellas County School System will then provide the food after June. 

“Kids should be able to get nutritious meals and one week supply worth of meals at the location they are currently going to,” stated Webb.

For more information about these food programs go to networktoendhunger.org and pcsb.org/FoodLocations.

Unemployment Updates 

Mayor Sam Henderson asked Webb to share any changes or amendments to the unemployment process. 

“What I’ve heard is their intent is to make everyone whole by putting retroactive payment into practice,” said Webb. 

“This isnt state revenue,” Webb continued. “This is money your employers have been paying to the state for years through insurance. The employers that have been contacting me, who have been angry, have every right to be frustrated and angry. This is money that you’ve been paying for a long time and your employees deserve this, for this exact kind of justification.”

“I’m advocating for this system to be fixed as soon as possible,” continued Webb.
For them to err on the side of issuing checks and then following up on things that they may think is fraud. It’s $275, it’s not a lot of money.” 

Webb also encouraged all 1099 employees, contract workers, artists, etc. to apply for unemployment. 

“You will get denied by the state but within 24 hours, a button should appear for you to apply for the $600 monthly federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA),” said Webb. 

If the process takes more than 24 hours, Webb encouraged people to contact her at jennifer.webb@myfloridahouse.gov.

Operational Updates by City Manager Jim O’Reilly 

GEMs is offering a reduced capacity schedule for seniors in need of transportation. Extra precautions have been put in place. Only two individuals will be allowed in the vehicle at a time. Larger vehicles are being used to maintain the six-foot recommended distance. Employees will wear masks, and riders are encouraged to do so as well. The drivers will clean the vehicles between each pick up and drop off. The vehicles will run on an as-needed basis. 

“The recreation department, following the lead of mutual municipalities, will offer a scaled-back summer program for children,” said O’Reilly. 

The department will offer 54 slots for residents and city employees only. There will be nine children assigned to one coach and the program will be simplified with no field trips, explained O’Reilly.

Residents who expressed interest in the program should have received an email on Wednesday, May 20 concerning registration. 

Children aren’t the only ones who will get to enjoy organized activities this summer. The Boomerangs, Gulfport’s Senior Softball program, has been given the “okay” to play at Hoyt Field Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 7:15 to 9:00 a.m. 

“The capacity of the park well supports the 20 or so individuals that will be out running around,” said O’Reilly. 

The skatepark, tennis courts and dog parks are open. However, Gulfport volleyball activities will be suspended and will be taken to St. Pete Beach. 

“This is to try to manage groups of less than 50,” said O’Reilly. 

On Thursday, May 28, the annual hurricane seminar will be virtual. The seminar will be hosted by the National Weather Service and broadcast on Gulfport TV 640 (Spectrum only). City staff will send out further information on how to view the presentation and how to submit questions prior to broadcast. 

City Manager Announces the End of Utility Amnesty

“At some point we will need to move away from the amnesty period of turn offs and turn ons,” said O’Reilly. “In approximately 45 days we will need to reinstate that for three reasons:

  1. There has to be some effort to be conscientious and to motivate folks to conserve 
  2. This is an enterprise fund. There will be liquidity issues; we need the cash flow in that account 
  3. We don’t want some of these folk’s bills to get too big where they will not catch up.

“Next month we hope to bring a program to you to work with residents like we did with small businesses,” said O’Reilly. “During the July 7th meeting we need to implement turn offs at that point.”

City staff is currently in the process to create a need-based utility credit similar to the COVID-19 Small Business Gateway Grant Program.  

“We can set up a way for people who are truly in need, those are the ones that will qualify,” said Mayor Henderson. 

Gulfport Public Library Parking Lot Pick-up Services

The Gulfport Public Library’s “Parking Lot Pick-Up” program, which started on Monday, May 18, is going well according to O’Reilly who referred to the library’s director Dave Mathers for additional information. 

“On Monday we had 40 to 45 people take part of our parking lot pick-up service,” said Mather. “Today, just before the meeting, I checked and we had 30 positive comments from individuals who’ve used this new service.” 

Currently requests to check out library items cannot be made through the library’s website due to the shared county system. 

“Not all public libraries are offering this service,” explained Mather. “We’re asking guests to place their orders by calling or emailing.”

Pick-Up is available on weekdays only, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To place your order, call 727-893- 1074 or email libraryinfo@mygulfport.us. Please provide your library card number, name, and title and format (DVD, book, large print, etc.) of the item when you make your request. You will be notified via a phone call or email when your items are ready for pick-up. Visit mygulfport.us/covid-19 for more details or click here.

Budget Proposal 

City Manager O’Reilly also briefed the council on the first step in the budget process.

“A lot of our budget is recurring costs,” explained O’Reilly. “This budget proposal also touches on items council members have brought to light over the past years.”

Some of the items that were discussed included upgrading the city’s technology deficits. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, deficiencies in the city’s technology department have been identified. 

“We need to update our communication between departments,” said O’Reilly. “And we also need to update how residents communicate and receive services from the city.” 

O’Reilly alluded to the development of an online application to help residents get services done easily without untimely disruptions. 

There is also a need to purchase and install financial software that was last updated three years ago. 

Other necessary budget requirements focused on public safety, infrastructure facility repairs and maintenance. O’ Reilly implored councilmembers to “really take a look” at the budget and give further direction for current budget place holders.

Odds and Ends; Rumors Addressed

  • The discussion to move City Hall has been suspended.  

The project is currently unfunded, but will need to take place in the next five to seven years, according to City Manager O’Reilly. “At some point we’ll have to improve our operations for staff purposes,” said O’Reilly. 

  • Funding to replace the Senior Center

“There have been numerous conversations about replacing the Senior Center,” stated O’Reilly. Nothing has been budgeted for a new senior center, but there have been brainstorming sessions concerning fundraising and future plans. 

  • Pay-to-Park is coming to Gulfport. 

But, only at the marina according to O’Reilly. “We have very limited parking at the marina. If you want to park your trailer at the marina, you’re going to have to pay,” said O’Reilly. “It also removes us from needing to be there during the day to collect payment.” 

  • Mayor Sam Henderson addressed rumors that live-aboards were not allowed to come ashore during the “Stay-at-Home” order. 

Henderson maintained that at no point were people not allowed to come on land from their boats in Gulfport. 

“They were never turned away from the marina; no one was disallowed from getting out of the water to get supplies or use facilities,” continued Henderson. “They were allowed to come on shore at different parts, just not the Casino dock. That dock is a transient dock. We blocked one point of access – we did what we were told to do.”

  • Police Chief Rob Vincent addressed complaints that restaurants were not complying with the six-foot distancing guidelines 

“I’ve been getting a lot of complaints of the restaurants being too crowded,” said Councilmember April Thanos. “The tables have been measured at six feet apart, but aren’t the people sitting at the tables supposed to be six feet apart from other guests?”

“We’re not planning on sending out any police officers, code enforcement or fire fighters to tell individuals that they need to move,” responded Vincent. “If we see a violation we will address it with the management of the particular business and say, ‘This is something you need to correct.’”

Vincent continued: “I’ve spent two hours over the last two days observing the establishment that has received these complaints. In fact, myself, [Fire Inspector] Lundh and a field inspector all came to the same conclusion that the complaints are unfounded.”

  • Comments from council about Phase 2 of Florida reopening 

“Nothing about how this virus works has changed,” said Mayor Sam Henderson. “It’s been a fun thing to do for the last several weeks to point out the places that seem to have too many people, but the bottom line is, if you’re still concerned, don’t go.”

Henderson added that he was “not ready to sit down at a restaurant or a bar or a movie theater or put my fingers in a bowling ball at a bowling alley quite yet. I feel like I’m a fairly sturdy person but i’m not willing to roll the dice on people that I love and people that I interact with.” 

“I think people are missing the point as we’re relaxing the ‘stay-at-home,’” said Councilmember Paul Ray. “But this pandemic is not over by any means, we need to be more vigilant and more careful as we move forward making sure that, as elected officials we show an example, using hand sanitizer, washing our hands and using face masks while out in public. It’s our obligation to the people who voted for us.” 

Ray also requested that the Pride flag-raising be played virtually to avoid drawing crowds for the event. 

Overheard at the May 19 Council Meeting

“I’m happy to not have guns on campus.” – Councilmember Christine Brown during State Representative Jennifer Webb’s school program discussion. 

“If people are leaning back in their chairs relaxing, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the staff to tell people to scoot their chairs closer to their tables.” – Police Chief Rob Vincent in response to Councilmember April Thanos’ inquiry into social distancing complaints at Gulfport restaurants. 

“I’m not in favor of big government telling people how they can paint their house or grow their lawn.” – Councilmember Chrsitne Brown in response to Councilmember April Thanos’ suggestion to increase the mandatory green space of Gulfport residents’ lawns. 

“I’m all for learning about permeable lawn options. But, if the end goal of this is to tell people further what they can or cannot do with their yard, I’m out.” – Mayor Sam Henderson

“We’ve become a victim of our own success.” – Gulfport resident Kathy Amiller submitted in writing for public comment. Amiller went on to state that Gulfport is growing too fast and is in danger of losing its charm due to big businesses booming in Gulfport. 

“We’re looking at getting $20,000 worth of trees planted, because they’re certainly not going to grow as money in the bank.” – Councilmember April Thanos during council comments. 

 

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