You Paid For It: Why wasn’t Penny for Pinellas money used to fix drainage problems?

Some stormwater and sewage treatment systems in Pinellas cities were overwhelmed by the deluge during Hurricane Hermine.
Some stormwater and sewage treatment systems in Pinellas cities were overwhelmed by the deluge during Hurricane Hermine.
Some stormwater and sewage treatment systems in Pinellas cities were overwhelmed by the deluge during Hurricane Hermine.
Some stormwater and sewage treatment systems in Pinellas cities were overwhelmed by the deluge during Hurricane Hermine.

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Nineteen hours after Tuesday’s grilling by the Pinellas delegation of state lawmakers, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Krisemen placed City Engineer Tom Gibson and Water Resources Director Steve Leavitt on unpaid administrative leave. Both men were immediately replaced.

All of that is the apparent result of the city dumping 150 million gallons of effluent and sewage into Tampa Bay and Pinellas waterways during and after Hurricane Hermine. It turns out the city had a warning about sewage overflows two years ago, which city managers failed to act on.

St. Petersburg city managers largely ignored a $94,000 sewage study commissioned in 2014 by Gibson that You Paid For. The study said the Albert Whitted Sewage Treatment Plant should remain open until the city could expand capacity at other plants. Gibson and other city managers closed it anyway.

Mayor Kriseman insists he knew nothing of that study until a whistleblower stepped forward last week. The mayor is now calling for an internal investigation of his own management team.

Governor Scott is calling for a state Department of Environmental Protection investigation and Congressman David Jolly, R-Pinellas, wants the Environmental Protection Agency to get involved and is offering to assist other city workers seeking whistleblower protection if they’re afraid to speak out. Suddenly, St. Petersburg’s sewage problem is getting very political.

The storm caught St.Petersburg unprepared because city leaders failed to build an infrastructure to prevent such a disaster, despite hundreds of millions of dollars raised for just that sort of purpose since 1990 — money that You Paid For — through the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.

Countywide the penny tax will have raised $3.5 billion by the end of this decade, but precious little of that money has been spent by St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo and the other local governments across Pinellas to guard against sewage overflows and stormwater flooding.

“We need every city to plan for storms and plan for emergency management and it surprises me when they say we don’t plan for this,” State Rep Kathleen Peters, R-Pinellas, said. “The penny was for infrastructure. I’m not sure when culture and recreation got put into it.”

RELATED: St Petersburg officials say it may take more than 2 years for wastewater problems to be corrected

Local leaders insist their stormwater and sewage treatment systems were simply overwhelmed by the deluge during Hermine. But, Peters wants to know why they didn’t spend more from the Penny for Pinellas tax on systems that could have handled the overload and prevented the environmental disaster of dumping sewage into Tampa Bay, Boca Ciega Bay and other sensitive waterways.

“When it’s up for a vote again where’s our confidence it’s going to be going where it should be going,” Peters said.

RELATED: Wastewater spills into Clearwater streets because of plant failure

Councilman says city made massive mistake in 2011

St. Petersburg City Councilman Steve Kornell says if the city council had voted to keep the Albert Whitted treatment plant open in 2011, the recent dumping of nearly 150 millions gallons of sewage could have been prevented.

Kornell says he’s done everything he could and is disappointed by the dumping into Tampa Bay and Boca Ciega Bay.

“I think the second that we started discharging at the Northwest Plant, the second, we should have been notifying the media and notifying the public and letting them know,” Kornell told News Channel 8. “These overflows wouldn’t be happening because they were clearly caused by that closure.”

Kornell doesn’t want to play the blame game, he said. Instead, he wants wants the problem fixed.

We need to get it done tomorrow, but unfortunately … that’s not feasible,” Kornell said.

Kornell wants the Albert Whitted treatment plant re-opened. He plans to bring it up as a new item of business at a city council meeting on Oct. 6.

RELATED: Sewage dumped into Tampa Bay believed to have killed birds provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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