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City records contradict campaign claims

Mayoral hopeful Costa Vatikiotis says Tarpon Springs' public safety building is over budget. Records don't back him up.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


TARPON SPRINGS -- As a candidate for mayor, Costa Vatikiotis has made the cost of the city's new public safety building a major part of his campaign, but what he says now about the project's cost is different from a construction estimate he signed nearly three years ago.

During the campaign, he has said in interviews that the cost of the building ballooned after he resigned as city manager in 1998. In an interview last month, he said the building should have cost about $2.5-million. Other times, he has said the project is well over budget.

But city records show that Vatikiotis himself signed an agreement with architects in 1998 that estimated the cost of construction at nearly $3.8-million.

Records also show that the current construction budget for the building is close to what was being discussed when Vatikiotis was city manager and that the project is within its budget.

The campaign for mayor is growing into a battle between two men and two sets of numbers. Vatikiotis often criticizes Mayor Frank DiDonato and other commissioners for not being fiscally responsible and for overspending on some projects. DiDonato has said he and his fellow commissioners have reined in spending while completing several projects left behind by Vatikiotis and previous commissioners, and he cites the public safety building as one carry-over project on which this City Commission has spent wisely.

In the case of the public safety building, city documents contradict some of Vatikiotis' statements.

The idea for a public safety building, which will house the city's fire and police departments, originated in 1996 when Vatikiotis was city manager. The Fire Department talked about a need to expand Station 69 on Lemon Street, but all involved recall that Vatikiotis proposed moving the two departments out of their current homes into a new building.

Initially, the building was discussed by Vatikiotis and others in the city as a $2-million to $3-million project. That amount never appeared in any city budgets. Rather, Vatikiotis said, it was based on an initial concept for the project.

In 1997, the city bought property at Huey Avenue and Lime Street for $350,000. The next year, the architectural firm Gee & Jenson submitted a 15-page agreement that outlined the square footage, construction phases and a variety of provisions for the project.

The agreement also added up the anticipated costs of construction, landscaping, site development, telephone cabling and other expenses. The total price was estimated at almost $3.8-million. Then-City Manager Vatikiotis and DiDonato signed the document.

During the current mayoral campaign, Vatikiotis has said in interviews that the construction should have cost much less than that.

Vatikiotis recently was asked what the project would have cost if he were overseeing it. He said, "$2.5-million, I think, would have been reasonable."

So why did he sign an agreement with architects in 1998 estimating the construction costs at nearly $3.8-million?

"In the spirit of moving things forward," he said last week.

He also said the 15-page agreement between the city and architectural firm Gee & Jenson, which lays out specific details about the amount of time and money the project would require, is a "soft document." And he said that to save money, the city should have constructed a smaller building or built it in two phases.

He also pointed out that the city has taken some things out of the original plans for the building, such as the original plan to move the city's mainframe computer to the new building. Vatikiotis said it makes more sense to move that equipment into the new building, which is structurally more solid than City Hall.

Fire Chief Harry Leonard said the decision was made to keep the mainframe at City Hall, where it would be closer to most of its users. He said it was more cost-effective to harden an area in City Hall than to move the mainframe.

Some of Vatikiotis' other criticisms about the building also are contradicted by city documents and his own statements. In campaign literature, Vatikiotis said: "Public Safety building and Sponge Docks improvements total approximately $2.5-million over original budgets."

But Vatikiotis says his statements that the safety building is over budget were based on an initial concept that the building would cost between $2-million and $3-million.

Vatikiotis acknowledges that that amount was never budgeted, and said in a recent interview that those numbers were only conceptual.

A report presented to the City Commission last week shows that the public safety building is not over budget.

The building should be completed in the next month, and Leonard expects it to be at or below budget.

The building is expected to cost slightly more than $4-million to construct, and the entire project, including furnishings, telephone systems and the price of the land, is expected to cost about $5.02-million. The budget for the entire project is $5.056-million.

Leonard, who has worked on the project since its conception, said he did not want to get involved in a political dispute. But he also does not understand why Vatikiotis has claimed the project is too expensive, and he said Vatikiotis was aware of what the building would cost when he was city manager.

"We all knew we were looking at between $3.5-million and $4-million," Leonard said. "Everyone in the city knew that."

He pointed out that City Manager Ellen Posivach and current city commissioners have cut costs in several areas of the project. The furniture budget, for instance, was cut in half, from $450,000 to $225,000. Some furniture currently in use by the departments will move to the new building, he said.

"The plain fact is that we were able to do the project for the amount of money we were given," Leonard said.

- Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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