Holmes Vows Scrutiny of Largo's Projects
by Leo Coughlin
LARGO - The method of funding for all projects proposed by the city should be disclosed at the outset, Commissioner Curtis Holmes told the Clearwater Gazette Friday in an exclusive interview.
The newest member of the Largo City Commission does not want he or his colleagues on the commission to be blind sided by information that comes as a surprise to them as was the case at the November 10 meeting when it was disclosed that the new Community Center was going to be funded by borrowing $10 million from a bank.
And that disclosure came from Henry Schubert, an assistant city manager, only after intense questioning by Holmes and Commissioner Mary Black.
During a presentation updating the status of the center project at the work session meeting, Holmes asked Schubert if the plan was fully funded.
Schubert, surprisingly, said yes. This was not entirely accurate, as further questioning brought out.
"Ten million dollars have been appropriated for the Community Center," Schubert said, obviously overlooking the difference between "appropriation" and "funding."
In fact, if appropriation means the City Commission's approval of how a project is to be paid for, Schubert could not have been more wrong.
The truth was finally wrung out of him when he disclosed that the money would be borrowed from a bank - interest rate yet unknown - with the loan collaterized by Penny for Pinellas funds in the 2010 to 2020 period. In other words, money that might or might not come in.
The fact of the matter is that at the moment Holmes asked his question the Community Center was not funded.
And no one on the commission knew this before Holmes's questioning. If any member did, that person was indulging in whoever invented this conspiracy of secrecy.
When Black asked, believing that Schubert had said the center was being funded by Penny for Pinellas, that there would be no interest costs because "we are borrowing from one of our funds," she was quickly disabused of that notion.
It was only then that Schubert fully revealed that the plan was to borrow from a bank, an exercise not yet undertaken at that point.
One veteran observer and former elected official said, "It is incredible that this project is this far along and the city administration has not yet gotten approval from the City Commission to borrow any money. That is sure taking a lot for granted."
Holmes, upset at the administration's lack of coming clean on what it had planned, said, "I am going to insist that we know up front how all projects are going to be funded." He added, "We are the guardians of the public treasury and this is our absolute fiduciary duty."
Holmes plans to ask details of all pending and planned projects and how they are being funded.
What is amazing is that as long as the new Community Center has been talked about - several years now - and with the project approaching the beginning of actual construction, no member of the City Commission has ever raised the question of funding.
The project may have a troubled future.
Administration officials still must come to the commission to get approval on any loan.
Given the bleak financial situation in the city and monstrous budget cuts lying in the years to come, commissioners may find it hard to authorize the borrowing of $10 million with funds that may (or may not) come in the future.
"The ripple effect of the current severe recession may result in dramatic lessening of Penny for Pinellas (officially known as the local option sales tax - LOST) funds," Holmes pointed out. "Who knows what the future may bring?" he added.
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