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Officials take steps to build a city hall
By AMY WIMMER
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 6, 2000
ST. PETE BEACH -- The City Commission on Tuesday set aside $1.2-million for construction of a new city hall, allowed that new building to include 20 fewer parking spaces than stipulated by code, and chose a roof pitch for city hall that will highlight its architecture, not the roof itself.
Each decision came amid criticism from several community leaders. Some questioned how quickly the commission was approving the project. Others suggested that the Corey Avenue location, selected in January, would have too much congestion and too little parking for the business district to handle.
Others returned to the question that has plagued the city hall project since it was first suggested years ago: Why no referendum on such a big expenditure?
"It has changed so much from what we promised our citizens," said former Commissioner John Bailey, who sat on the commission when it agreed to take the issue to referendum if the city decided to build a new headquarters rather than remodel the existing one.
The current commission decided against a referendum, citing the unusual benefit of having "free" land supplied by a local developer. The city also liked the idea of bringing City Hall to Corey Avenue, where it would have the benefit of pedestrian traffic and even contribute to the business district's resurgence.
"There were a lot of intangible benefits to this," City Manager Carl Schwing said.
Commissioner John Phillips said he felt a referendum would be an easy way out for elected officials who didn't want to take responsibility for making the decision.
Commissioner Jim Myers said that opting to construct a new building on donated land seemed such a unique opportunity that commissioners decided not to put the issue to a referendum, even though a couple years ago the city discussed a possible charter amendment that would have forced commissioners to always place expenditures of more than $400,000 or $500,000 on the ballot.
The projected cost for City Hall is $2.8-million. Bailey also pointed to construction of the police station, which was placed on the ballot even though it was a less-expensive project than City Hall is expected to be. "There's a precedent for referendums."
"We talked about it long and hard and decided this was a reasonable decision, and we would not go for a referendum," Myers said.
Theories abound for what's behind the criticism. Members of the City Hall Advisory Committee say the commission has left them out of key decisions and want to be more involved. Some admit they are concerned about the unusual land deal that made the construction of a new city hall possible. Others suggest the sources of the criticism are potential candidates who might run for seats on the City Commission in a few months.
With construction work scheduled to begin in November, still others say that the commission is simply working too fast and refusing to spend time making crucial decisions.
"What would be wrong with waiting, being that there's been some questions about this whole process tonight?" Vina Del Mar resident Augie D'Alessio said at the commission meeting Tuesday after several city residents complained.
Commissioner Peter Blank, however, said that after more than a decade of wrangling over a city hall decision, the time has come to decide on the details.
"I don't think anybody can accuse anybody of going too fast on this project," Blank said.
Yet to keep costs low and prevent the city from making changes to the project once construction has begun, Blank said, the commission needs to make the right decisions upfront.
"We need to go into it in a unified way, and then we need to back off and let the builder build the building," Blank said.
Some of the concerns, however, stem from the developer and his offer.
Paul Skipper of Long Key Properties first offered two years ago to build a city hall on his 1.25-acre Corey Avenue property -- land he had purchased for $538,000 -- and then lease the building to the city.
The property itself is the former home of Paradise Miniature Golf Course. Skipper had planned to construct a 20,000-square-foot office building on the site for an insurance firm, but the company pulled out.
At the time, the city turned him down. But Skipper came back months later with another proposal. He offered to hand the property over to the city if the city would pay him to build the city hall.
The commission asked City Attorney Jim Devito whether Skipper's donation of the land made it possible to award him the contract without going through a bid process. When Devito advised commissioners they could, elected officials began to consider the proposal more seriously.
"I think the process is certainly unique," Schwing said. "The city attorney is a very conservative individual. He would not have felt comfortable in recommending legally that this process can be followed if he did not feel this could be done legally."
The commission approved a contract with Skipper in January. Construction work could begin as soon as November.
Some of the city hall critics also say they fear the unusual land deal makes the city vulnerable to receiving cheap work and cheap materials if the commission does not tread carefully.
"It appears on the surface that we are paying top dollar for this building, and it seems that we may not be getting top dollar for this building," said Jack Ohlhaber, chairman of the citizens' City Hall Advisory Committee.
Ohlhaber specifically is concerned that the commission might use cement tile for the roof instead of clay tile, and install an asphalt parking lot rather than use a more porous, yet more expensive, material. Some fear the prearranged price of the building has left the city in a poor bargaining situation.
Mayor Ward Friszolowski, however, questions where the critics were several months ago when commissioners were seeking comment on whether Skipper's proposition was a good one. He also defended decisions the city has made so far.
Now, a contract has been signed, and the contract has deadlines.
"I don't think they were bad choices," Friszolowski said. "They were reasonable choices."
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.