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Darden Rice takes to Facebook to defend BP settlement plan

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman has at least one ally on City Council when it comes to his plan to use $6.5 million awarded as a result of the BP oil spill lawsuit. In addition to flanking Kriseman at the press conference Wednesday announcing his plan, Darden Rice took to Facebook in support of the anticipated appropriations.

“Putting aside some BP settlement money for fixing sewer pipes is totally reasonable and the right thing to do. But not all of it,” Rice wrote.

And that’s exactly what Kriseman’s plan does. Following a damning revelation that the city had dumped more than 30 gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into various waterways around the city, including the 15 million gallon dump of raw sewage into Clam Bayou, Kriseman decided to include $1.2 million in his plan for BP funds in order to create a comprehensive resiliency plan geared toward making sure it never happens again.

Another $1 million would be used for replacement or repairs to city wastewater assets.

That Kriseman is not allocating all of the money to wastewater improvements – many of which are expected to cost into the hundreds of millions over the next two decades – has irritated some residents. Kriseman also earmarked BP funds for things like bike share and an arts endowment.

But Rice was quick to defend the Mayor’s plan, which still needs to be approved by council in order to allocate funds.

“To engage in conversations where we pit fixing sewer lines versus the arts, versus research vessels, versus resiliency planning is not the right conversation to have.

We need to look forward,” she wrote.

Rice’s Facebook post included a pie chart breaking down where the city spends its money. Wastewater-related expenses account for 23 percent of all funding. That translated to $117 million in 2015.

“We need to demand better use of the funds we have allocated to fixing infrastructure and not put down other worthy, forward thinking ideas,” Rice wrote.

She also pointed out that more than $10 million can be available for needed improvements by this time next year through a combination of the $1 million proposal from BP funds, $4.5 million allocated in the 2016 budget and then another $5 million that could be available for the fiscal year 2017 budget that will be finalized next October.

And on the issue of using BP settlement funds for resiliency and sustainability-related expenses, Rice pointed out that’s exactly what Kriseman’s plan does.

There are line items for planting trees. The bike share program would decrease the need for as many cars on the road in downtown. A proposal to use some of the funding for a ferry pilot project connecting downtown St. Pete to Tampa.

But what about the arts? Many argue that has nothing to do with resiliency or sustainability. Rice made a similar argument made Wednesday by Kriseman calling it an issue of “economic sustainability.”

And Kriseman’s plan was met with cheers and smiles. Several cycling groups applauded the plan for a $1 million bike share allocation that would fund half of the cost to implement a program. Suzanne Pomerantzeff, a teacher at Gibb’s High School’s center for performing arts and head of St. Pete’s Academy of Ballet Arts, sat front and center. She teared up when he announced the $1 million endowment for the arts.

“The BP money is not “free.” We dodged a bullet, but still suffered economic harms. A reckless corporation oiled 1100 miles of coastline, damaged fisheries, and severely impacted marine life. Scientists say the dispersants – also toxic – left a huge ‘bathtub ring’ of oil on the seafloor. We will be dealing with long terms impacts for years to come,” Rice reminded.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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