Vice Mayor: Politics Not Involved in 'Quality of Life' Proposal
No behind-the-scenes dealings are part of an $800,000 funding package for "Quality of Life" institutions including the Dunedin Fine Arts Center and the Historical Society, according to officials.
Accusations of political scheming surfaced last week when the city manager dropped an $800,000 package of city funding requests from Dunedin’s arts and cultural community dressed as a “Quality of Life Initiative.”
Commissioner David Carson and Mayor Dave Eggers, both up for re-election, had strong opinions about the timing of Rob DiSpirito’s initiative which first surfaced at a workshop meeting Sept. 20.
"I think the timing on this is bad," Carson said. "This should have been brought up after the election. Let the new commission, no matter who they are, vote on it."
They expressed frustration over how the monetary requests from the Dunedin Fine Art Center and Dunedin Historical Society were packaged together so they could not be reviewed independent of one another.
Vice Mayor Ron Barnette refuted allegations of any “behind-the-scenes discussions” or “lack of transparency” during the making of the Quality of Life initiative workshop.
The meeting had been pushed more than a month after its original Aug. 14 date for technical difficulties with Dunedin TV, a city spokeswoman said in August. It was also scheduled seven days before the commission cast a final vote on the 2013 budget, which includes cuts to 10 city positions.
What's In The Initiative?
During the workshop, DiSpirito presented to the commission a four-pronged approach for improving Dunedin’s “quality of life” through $800,000 in funding to two nonprofit arts and cultural groups in the city.
In it, he called for:
- Using code enforcement fines to help repaint and make repairs to private homes in distressed neighborhoods.
- Giving $200,000 to the Dunedin Historical Society and Museum for an 800-square-foot expansion and rehabilitation.
- Giving $500,000 to the Dunedin Fine Art Center to match a "rare grant opportunity" for a planned expansion of its West Wing.
- Alotting $100,000 toward Blatchley House improvements.
DiSpirito told commissioners the funding requests would not impact the 2013 budget, but did not provide a concrete payment plan.
"Interest rates are at an all-time low, so borrowing to fund these construction costs will never be as affordable as it is today," DiSpirito said, outlining a possible 20-year payment plan that would require an estimated $60,000 to $70,000 in annual debt payments.
The $500,000 commitment to the Dunedin Fine Art Center is time sensitive. The organization needs to have a match by July 2013 to be considered for a state grant designated for a planned expansion.
Barnette was the first elected official to speak about the "Quality of Life" package.
He issued strong praise, describing the plan as “exciting” and “bold” even describing it as "standing shoulder to shoulder” with past commission decisions.
Barnette compared its foresight to that of former Mayor Gerry Rhem’s vision for Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island state parks, echoing language and sentiment also spoken by mayoral candidate Bob Hackworth, Eggers' opponent.
Not everyone on the dais agreed with the plan.
Carson criticized it, saying the process is "lacking in transparency" and is the result of "behind-the-scenes" talks. He asked DiSpirito to "unbundle" the items, because he feels like the needs should be prioritized.
"I'd like to see (each line item in the plan) ... voted on their own merits, rather than saying, 'well, I don’t like one, so I have to vote against all of them,' " Carson said, pointing to a longtime need to fix a leaky roof at the Englebert Complex and his reluctance to add a 20-year debt financing payment to the city's already strapped budget. He called for "diligence" and fiscal discipline.
Barnette disagreed. He defended DiSpirito's plan as budget conscious, and instead called the plan to expand the Fine Art Center and Historical Museum as a "reaffirmation of who we are."
"I don't see this as an either-or: this doesn't mean that the roof's gonna leak if we put a quality of life component into our budget. It just means we're broadening our philosophy.
"I don't think this is at all tied up with a political situation now. And this behind-the-scenes thing, I don't know what the hell that's about. It's been pretty much upfront. This is the first time I've read it," Barnette said.
Eggers said the Quality of Life Initiative only represented two major community groups and was not fully representative of the city. He also said the timing made him feel "pushed into a corner" for the $500,000 grant, but called the workshop a great first discussion.
He wanted the Quality of Life Initiative discussion to be a part of a larger discussion in light of other financial commitments and projects, but also include other community and recreation groups.
"I don't want to lose sight of all of that," he said. "When we have these discussions, it seems like it just comes to a crescendo, and we have to like, 'OK, it's now or never' or 'you're either for us or against us.' And frankly, I'm a little irritating. There's nothing in the discussion today that is for or against anybody."
Barnette followed up with an email to DiSpirito the next day:
Without getting into any detailed commentary, which would be inappropriate, I felt the urge to express a couple of thoughts about this morning’s session on the Quality of Life Initiative you drafted for our deliberation.
First, it was unfortunate that remarks were made which suggested that politics were somehow involved in your Initiative, and that there seemed to be a lack of transparency, coupled with behind-the-scenes discussions, as it were. These remarks only send to the public a negative impression of what their elected leadership are up to, which serves no good end. Furthermore, I am convinced, knowing your integrity, that the suggested accusations were entirely false and baseless.
Second, while the remarks amongst commissioners clearly indicated differences, I’d like to think that the direction given for your creative financial possibilities to address this quality of life economic development matter will be received objectively, without prejudice, as we discuss further your findings.
With respect always,
Ron, you are correct on all counts. Thanks so much. Rob