ST. PETERSBURG — A new police station was one of the banner items that city leaders used to convince voters to extend the Penny for Pinellas sales tax in 2007.
But finding the money to replace the cramped and outdated buildings that the police department operates out of on First Avenue North has been a challenge with sales tax collections still sluggish after the recession.
Hoping to move the project forward, city officials this week proposed siphoning off $4.7 million of Penny for Pinellas funds left over from spending on neighborhoods, parks and recreation and other citywide projects.
That has prompted a fierce outcry from some residents, who packed Monday’s City Council meeting to question the city’s priorities. They argued that the money should be spent improving the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
After a heated two-hour debate, City Council members settled on a compromise solution transfering only $3.1 million from the penny tax fund toward a new police station. They said public safety is still the city’s top priority.
“If you don’t have a safe community, you’re not going to have good neighborhoods, you’re not going to have parks and recreation places that anyone wants to go to because they’re all going to be dangerous,” said Council Member Charlie Gerdes. “Our police department deserves an environment that is second to none.”
Many of those opposing the move were members of the People’s Budget Review, a grass roots group that has campaigned for more spending on neighborhoods, job training and youth programs,
“I’m not saying the police HQ shouldn’t be a priority, but so should the other 20 percent of your city that is living in poverty,” said St. Petersburg resident Ashley Green. “We need to make sure we’re investing in every area.”
City officials said the money reallocated for the police station was not earmarked for any other projects and stressed that no projects planned for 2014 would be delayed. Proposed spending includes $10.6 million for neighborhood infrastructure improvements and $5.7 million on parks and recreation projects, they said.
The police department operates out of three buildings, the oldest of which dates back to the 1920s, while detectives work from a 1950s-era bureau. The station is cramped and ill-suited for modern policing. Evidence, some of which must be stored for decades, is kept in a basement.
“They have to save all that stuff – there’s no ventilation,” said Council Member Bill Dudley. “When they have to get the evidence out, the smell is unbelievable.”
Council members are expected to review proposals in the next few weeks for a new station that could cost between $40 and $70 million. The city has roughly $19 million on hand for the project.
Mayor Bill Foster warned council members that even with those funds and the economy improving, the city may need to find other funding sources to complete the station.
“You’re going to need every penny to make this happen,” he said.