Question from Holmes Reveals Largo Administration Hid Key Financial Info
by Leo Coughlin
LARGO - Curtis Holmes, the newest member of the City Commission, wasted no time in making an impact in his new office at Tuesday night's work session meeting, blowing the lid off financial information that city administration officials were keeping hidden.
As a presentation on an update of the Community Center project was about to end, Holmes asked Henry Schubert, an assistant city manager, if the project was fully funded.
Then it became interesting.
Schubert said, "Yes, ten million dollars has been appropriated out of the Penny for Pinellas fund."
"So," Holmes pursued, "the funds are not borrowed?"
Then came the shift -
Schubert said, "We will borrow the money from the LOST (local option sales tax/Penny for Pinellas) fund to be repaid over the 10 year extension of the fund."
Commissioner Mary Black interjected to say, "So because we are borrowing from our own fund there won't be any interest cost?"
Not quite, it turns out, Schubert continued. The money, he said, will be borrowed from a bank with Penny for Pinellas funds pledged as collateral. "Just like we did with the library," Schubert said.
Schubert's initial response to Holmes's question was done so smoothly and artfully that its significance may have been first missed. But, like pulling teeth, the truth was finally extracted.
Black's usual digging into a subject and Holmes's pursuit of the question unearthed what is significant -
That the funding of the Community Center, which, according to the drawings architects showed Tuesday night is on a scale as lavish as the Taj Majhal, was to come from bank borrowing.
Until Tuesday night, the borrowing of $10 million from a bank has been a carefully hidden secret.
The total cost of the project is given as $10,456,700 plus about $50,000 for trees and landscaping. A federal grant is taking care of the $456,700 for photovoltaic energy cells and the $50,000 for trees, etc., is coming from the city's tree fund.
Schubert's answer - the borrowing aspect was never mentioned before Tuesday night - caught the commission by astounding surprise and, given the crucial financial and budget crunch lying out ahead, may have cast into doubt the future of the Community Center, which many citizens think is not needed.
Holmes, it is known, will oppose it and he already has the support of one other commissioner.
The project has been talked about for several years. It has accelerated in recent months and the presentation Tuesday night was to focus on the commission accepting some design concepts.
But Holmes upset the administration's applecart with his penetrating and crucial question.
That question took Schubert by surprise and he did some tap dancing before the full facts were elicited from him. His usual nervous demeanor went into high gear during the questioning.
Holmes's colleagues - all of them party to all the pre-planning with the Community Center and about which none ever asked a question about the funding of the project - were in a jaw dropping mode.
The "ask no questions" mode of the commission - up until Tuesday night - has been the hallmark of the group. Asking questions apparently might earn the reputation of not being a "team player."
Holmes, however, in his successful campaign for the commission in which he decisively beat Rodney Woods, said that he was more interested in serving the citizens of Largo than in being a team player and going along with every pie in the sky proposal of the city administration.
Mac Craig, the city manager, sat quietly and obviously bewildered by Holmes's questions and Schubert's answers. He appeared to be thinking that he might be in the middle of a bad dream.
Commissioner Woody Brown was appointed vice mayor by Mayor Pat Gerard which immediately raised the question among many observers of "how about Mary Black?"
Black has been on the commission for years and has never been given the vice mayor position.
"Nothing against Woody," one official said, "but this makes Gerard's hostility to Black very obvious."
The appointment of a vice mayor, like the naming of citizens to various boards, is the exclusive prerogative of the mayor alone.
This could change. What would make sense is for the mayor to name an appointee subject to ratification by the commission.
In the final comments, Holmes asked that the following subjects be scheduled for work session discussion -
Adding a second battery to police cars so that the vehicles did not have to run continuously when stopped to keep power flow to lights and computer; the take home car policy of the Police Department, and revising the citizen comments procedure so that when residents raise questions they are answered immediately.
"It looks like the commission is starting to take back power and restore the order of things," one observer said. "Craig and his people need to know that they work for the commission, not the other way around."
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