Largo Agrees to Spend $650,000 for Playground
By Leo Coughlin
LARGO - Commissioner Curtis Holmes learned at the City Commission meeting Tuesday night that in the fight to save taxpayer money with an almost certain tax increase looming, you don't always win the issue at hand.
He was opposed to spending big bucks at the playground in Central Park but it was the proposal of Commissioner Mary Black - who usually is an advocate of holding the line on expenditures - to lay out $650,000 for improvements to the playground.
According to the staff memo that accompanied the item, the playground was installed 15 years ago and has reached its "life expectancy."
The idea of fully replacing it was included in the current capital improvements budget. Money to finance re-doing the playground is coming from the LOST (local option sales tax) fund, popularly known as "Penny for Pinellas." Trouble is, Largo is deep in borrowing in that fund, extending into the next 10 years already.
Stressed in the staff memo is "safety concerns" about some of the equipment at the playground.
Holmes, the newcomer to the commission, seems to be discovering things almost on a daily basis that either his colleagues have no knowledge of or just accept in their comfort awaiting the days the checks arrive.
The latest was his question about an airboat that he espied at the small body of water next to City Hall. An airboat is a shallow draft vessel that is propelled by a very large fan propeller on its stern. Very commonly used in the Everglades.
Spotting the boat launched this query last Thursday by Holmes to City Hall -
"Why do we have an air boat? What need does it fulfill for the residents of the city? What department uses this boat and for what? What is the annual operating budget for this vehicle and support crew?"
This elicited a long and detailed explanation of 414 words from Brian Usher, Director of Public Works, as well as a 992 word disquisition on aquatic spray operations which, it turns out, is the primary purpose of the air boat.
These operations are being carried out, it would seem, with the dedication of going after a flea with an elephant gun. The bodies of water in Largo, which is virtually landlocked, of a size to accommodate an airboat can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Usher wrote that the city has operated an airboat as part of the aquatic weed control program since 1996. The original boat was replaced, he said, in 2009 at a cost of $41,967.
Holmes has been relentless in ferreting out areas where budgetary expenditures can possibly be cut.
He demonstrated that last week when he questioned the $236,931 contract going to a private concern to do grass cutting on the public ways.
Holmes said he thought that the contract could be one-third the amount stated. Mayor Pat Gerard agreed that less cutting would do, but settled on a 10 percent reduction.
Very little need of cutting takes place from November through January. Where the company doing the cutting proposed 36 and 42 cuttings a year in various places, Holmes pointed out that, once out of the winter season, only about 275 days were left in the year and a cutting once every 10 days would be sufficient. That, ineluctably comes out arithmetically, to be 27 cuttings.
Then Joan Byrne, Parks and Recreation director, mentioned in rebuttal that "visits" were required to the median strips to pick up trash and debris.
That prompted Holmes to come up with the idea Tuesday night to have county jail inmates do the pick up work. But Mayor Pat Gerard promptly said, "We're already doing that."
Holmes sent a query first thing Wednesday morning to Henry Schubert, an assistant city manager, who is standing in for Norton Craig in the city manager's absence.
"Last night, after I suggested that we use Sheriff (Jim) Coats' 'guests' to pick up the trash, as well as those individuals who are court ordered to perform community services, the mayor said we already do that," Holmes wrote.
"This is news to me and others because I checked before making the suggestion and those I talked to have NO knowledge of this being done. Please look into this and let me know. If it is being done, I'd like some details."
In a development regarding the present operation and future of the coffee shop at the library, the present leaseholder sent the city a communication in which she said she would not be interested in continuing after the current contract runs out next month.
She also refused a city offer to stay on with a month-to-month lease until a new vendor is found.
But an offer she made - to continue running the café rent free - was accepted by the city.
With the severe financial crisis and budget crunch, which was known going back two years, Norton Craig, the city manager, stated as a matter of principle that there would be no pay increases in the city in fiscal year 2011.
That principle was abandoned last week when Craig bowed to the request of Alan Zimmet, the city's legal officer, for a raise. The commission, with the exception of Holmes and Mary Black, assented.
So much for principle.
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