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St. Pete officials accused of skewing pier survey


Published:   |   Updated: November 22, 2013 at 10:16 PM

St. Petersburg leaders were frequently criticized for ignoring the public's wishes when they chose the futuristic Lens design for the city's new pier.

The unpopularity of the controversial project showed in an August referendum when 63 percent of voters rejected it, sending city officials back to the drawing board.

Now, critics say the city is getting it wrong again with a new survey that went online this week intended to find out what amenities residents want on the pier.

At issue is a question that asks if the inverted pyramid should be saved, even if that means a tax increase and a “significant annual operating subsidy.”

Supporters of the inverted pyramid say that wording is engineered to sway respondents against renovation of the 40-year-old building. And they point out that a local architectural firm recently publicized a proposal to renovate the pier well within the city's $46 million budget, meaning it can be saved without a tax hike.

“I think the goal is to take that option off the table, which is an inappropriate goal at this point,” said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse, who also said that Mayor Bill Foster broke a pledge to allow City Council to vet the survey before it was released.

Nurse's criticism was echoed by Fred Whaley, board chairman of Concerned Citizens of St. Petersburg, the group that collected more than 20,000 signatures to force the Lens referendum.

“They're a little bit prejudiced toward a conclusion,” Whaley said.

The controversial question was also part of an telephone survey of more than 800 residents recently conducted on behalf of the city by OpinionWorks, a Maryland polling firm. The city put the survey on its website this week and plans to publicize it with an insert in utility bills sent out over the next two weeks.

City staff defended the wording of the survey, which they said is focused on identifying what amenities residents want on their pier. They highlighted another question on renovating The Pier that does not mention cost.

“I'm not sure it's a standalone question, but the construction costs and operating costs have to be very clearly defined,” said Chris Ballestra, the city's managing director of development. “We've heard that before that people don't want a tax increase.”

City leaders have repeatedly said that renovating The Pier and the crumbling and corroded approach would cost upwards of $70 million.

But fans of The Pier say those numbers were based on replacing or even expanding its size and that there are cheaper renovation options if The Pier and approach are downsized.

Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman has not ruled out renovation but said he favors building a new pier.

It's likely that the city will conduct further polls, Ballestra said. The online survey could be useful, but considering the city cannot prevent residents outside the city from taking it, more weight should be given to the OpinionWorks poll, he said.

“The online is a nice to have addition that doesn't cost any money,” he said. “I'm curious to see if its consistent or not with the scientific survey.”

To take the online survey visit www.stpete.org/piersurvey

codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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