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Congressional earmarks are back; St. Pete requests $5 million

Mark Parker

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The St. Petersburg Public Library was re-named for President Barack Obama in February 2021. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

With Congress reversing its decade-old ban on federal earmarks, albeit under new branding, city officials are making a mad dash to submit applications for federal funding to their local lawmakers – St. Petersburg included.

Federal earmarks became known as “pork-barrel spending” before both the House and Senate banned the practice in 2011. Public sentiment on congressionally directed spending soured due to corruption scandals and spending boondoggles such as highly publicized “bridges to nowhere.”

Now known as “community funding projects,” lawmakers can once again request federal funding for specific projects in their districts. New guidelines cap earmarks at 1% of discretionary spending, exclude projects benefitting for-profit companies and require officials to post requests online. In an April 4 letter to St. Petersburg City Council, Mayor Ken Welch called the lift of the ban a great opportunity to submit requests to Congressman Charlie Crist.

“With an application deadline of April 13, we must act quickly to secure Federal dollars through this program …,” wrote Welch. “Due to the tight deadline and turnaround here, I am proposing four project submittal packages that we submit on behalf of the city with the unanimous support of the mayor’s office and city council.”

Based on a series of community conversations and discussions with Interim City Administrator Tom Greene and his staff, Welch selected four proposed projects totaling over $5 million:

  • Major renovations to the Obama Library at 5th Avenue North – $3,000,000. This includes a reconfiguration of the floor plan, roof replacement, exterior façade improvements, asbestos abatement, a new fire sprinkler system and a myriad of other upgrades.
  • Southside St. Petersburg Community Center upgrades – $901,000. That includes $350,000 for Manhattan Casino upgrades and a new HVAC system, $351,000 to replace the chilled water piping and control system at the Johnson Library and $200,000 for overall improvements at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center.
  • Police computer-aided dispatch, records management and mobile operating systems – $750,000. Pinellas County Government expressed support for a single, common platform to ensure all law enforcement agencies can share real-time data.
  • Sidewalk Masterplan – $400,000. The letter did not provide details for this project.

“All of these proposed projects will free up FY23 (fiscal year 2023) dollars in our budget to fund other high priorities for the city,” wrote Welch. Crist can request federal funding for up to 15 projects.

Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders questioned how the city administration chose the projects. Rep. Charlie Crist can request funding for up to 15 projects; the application deadline is April 13. Screengrab.

Greene presented the proposal to city council during Thursday’s meeting, relaying his excitement for the city to receive its “fair share of federal resources.” Vice-Chair Brandi Gabbard, who also chairs the Legislative Affairs Committee, expressed her desire to bring the proposal before that committee but noted the April 13 deadline made it impossible.

Gabbard credited the city administration for quickly compiling the list and said they are “all very worthwhile projects that we have not had the resources to really fund.” Gabbard added that she met with Crist and the congressman stressed the “critical importance” that the city council and administration strongly collaborate on the process. Welch’s letter stated that “requesting entities must provide evidence of community support, including a letter with majority support from the council, as well as the mayor …”

Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders questioned the decision-making process that decided what projects the city selected. She noted some projects, like the Sunshine Senior Center, “have been in constant conversation for a very long time,” yet failed to make the cut.

“I’m not sure where the Manhattan (Casino) came up until last month …,” she added. “How did one project jump over others?”

Greene explained one aspect of the analysis was that the projects are “shovel-ready.” He said the city has a significant amount of work to determine the overall needs of the Sunshine Center before planning the best path forward. He said the city could begin work on the listed projects immediately.

Greene added that the $3 million for the Obama Library is at the top of the spending parameter, and he envisions the Sunshine Center would follow a similar model.

“Once we’ve got a plan together, we know what we want to do, and we’ve got resources – kind of skin in the game, so to speak – then we would approach the federal government about supplementing our investment,” he said.

The city council unanimously approved the community funding projects. According to an April 1 report by the New York Times, lawmakers have already packed nearly 5,000 earmarks totaling $9 billion into the $1.5 trillion government spending bill. Some notable projects include $4.2 million for the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Idaho and $1.6 million for equitable growth of the shellfish aquaculture industry in Rhode Island.

 

 

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