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Teen, city official match wits over basketball court project

A 14-year-old who persuaded the council to okay basketball courts two years ago sticks to his guns as he learns a lesson on city budgeting.

By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 8, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- City Council member Virginia Littrell spread out maps for 14-year-old Chris Vineyard at City Hall on Friday afternoon. She showed him a draft of the city budget.

She tried to convince him that the city should not spend $90,000 in a tight budget year to build new basketball courts in North Shore Park, even though he sold the City Council on the idea in August 2000.

"A lot of people talked to me about this and said, 'Stick to your guns,' " Chris said on his way out of City Hall. "I really wanted to do that."

He said he told Littrell that kids and adults in the Old Northeast neighborhood near the park need the courts. Basketball hoops would blend in next to existing tennis courts, not block open water views as Littrell feared. And besides, he argued, his project was already on the city schedule for next year.

Then Chris added, "Ms. Littrell was very, very nice, and it was good to talk to her."

Last week, after talking to Chris' mom, Littrell told her colleagues that Chris was "on his way to college" and no longer cared about new courts. She and other council members talked of spending the money on something else. But Littrell hadn't asked Chris. He is going into ninth grade next year, and he still wants the courts built.

"It was all just a big misunderstanding, and that happens," Chris replied when asked how Littrell became confused.

To make up for it, Littrell offered Chris a deal Friday.

"I have agreed that at the end of two weeks, after he reviews all the facts and figures, I'll listen to his decision, and I'll vote however he decides," she said. "He's asked for a copy of the budget, which I will get for him. And I'll put him in touch with the right city professionals if he has any questions."

Littrell wants to use the $90,000 for two restroom/concession stand projects scheduled for 2006 and 2007 at other sports fields. Children's sports teams could use the stands to raise money, Littrell told Chris, so the projects would help more people.

Chris got a civics lesson two years ago when he first persuaded his elected officials to address a public need. He received another when politicians talked of taking the funding away from his project. But all of it has taught him about the sausage factory of political decisionmaking.

He learned that government projects can get expensive.

"I didn't think basketball courts would cost $90,000," Chris said.

He called Littrell's concession stand project, "a very important need. . . . I'm going to go through the budget," he said, "and see if you could take a few dollars from other things and do both my project and hers."

"He's coming after my council job, no question about it," Littrell said with amazement after her time with Chris on Friday.

Chris agreed that he "definitely" would like to serve as a public official some day, "making decisions, taking a stand."

Chris said he would like to give Littrell his decision on the basketball project sooner than the two weeks he has promised, but he's a little busy right now. He's going to basketball camp next week.

"I'll stay up late and review it," he said, "but not as in-depth as I'd like."

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