Considering the effect of the summer’s rains on leaky sewer pipes, it’s not surprising that Pinellas County’s aging infrastructure was a prime issue during a debate Tuesday between Kathleen Peters and Jennifer Webb.
And it’s probably not surprising that the cities, especially St. Petersburg, came in for harsh criticism from Peters, a Republican running for re-election to State House District 69. Webb, a Democrat, is opposing her.
“Local governments throughout the county have not done their job,” Peters said.
Peters had particularly harsh criticism for St. Petersburg’s Democratic Mayor Rick Kriseman although she never mentioned him by name. Instead, she referred to an “administration” or “this administration” when criticizing the decision to close one of three sewer treatment plants.
In answer to a question about the need to create mitigation strategies to deal with climate change, she said she was less interested in that than in another issue.
“My focus is right here with infrastructure. We can’t even get that right,” Peters said.
Peters then referred to “this administration” that had closed a sewer plant despite claiming to be an environmentally friendly community. Peters said it irked her when the administration blamed a previous administration for closing the plant. She further criticized the administration for not spending BP money for items other than infrastructure.
Ben Kirby, the mayor’s spokesman, agreed Wednesday that it was clear Peters was referring to Kriseman. But, he said, she had her facts wrong.
“Rep. Peters is just flat wrong,” Kirby said. “This administration didn’t close any wastewater treatment plant.”
The discussion about closing the Albert Whitted plant began years ago during the tenure of Rick Baker as mayor as the result of a consultant’s report, Kirby said. The St. Petersburg City Council voted in 2011 to close the plant. That, he said, was during Bill Foster’s term. Kriseman didn’t take office until 2013. Baker and Foster are both Republicans.
St. Petersburg’s sewer woes come from “years and years and years” of neglect, he said. The sewer discharge doesn’t come from lack of treatment plants but rain water seeping into leaky pipes that then overload the system. The council and the Kriseman administration, he said, have committed millions – including some BP money – to fixing the infrastructure.
Even so, Peters said she had done her part since she was elected to the Legislature to help solve infrastructure problems by bringing back about $1.7 million in state money to help Gulfport and St. Pete Beach deal with their sewer issues. Peters and state Sen. Jack Latvala called for a meeting of area officials and the Legislative Delegation to discuss what needs to be done. That meeting is set for Tuesday.
“Nobody will work harder at this than I have,” Peters said.
Webb responded, saying $1.7 million “over five years is a pittance compared to what it’s going to take.”
Cities have asked for help, she said, but the pleas have fallen on half-deaf ears. True leadership, Webb said, requires officials to help when they see their constituents under water and their streets turning into “sewage rivers.” And, that leadership, she said, needs to be provided “even when it’s not an election year.”
Webb said she believes the state and perhaps the federal government should help finance the needed infrastructure improvements.
Webb also had a differing point of view when it came to establishing hazard mitigation strategies for climate change. The question involved ways to get Gov. Rick Scott to deal with the issue. The question wasn’t clear as to what the questioner wanted Scott to do, but Webb got one of the few laughs of the evening when she said, “You mean, like to actually use the words ‘climate change’?”
Hazard mitigation is essential, Webb said, and it needs to be statewide. As for Scott, Webb said he’d be out of office in two years, and that would be a better time to create such rules.
The debate, the first between the two, was sponsored by the Crossroads Community Association.
HD 69 includes Gulfport, South Pasadena, Pinellas Park, parts of St. Petersburg and some of the south Pinellas beach communities. The election is Nov. 8.