Council Gifts $225-thousand to Aquarium
by Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - The financial needs of a worthy organization and the uncertain outcome of the January property tax referendum met in Clearwater City Council Chambers last week, and, as is usual with such conflicts, a compromise was reached.
At issue was a request made of the city by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) for capital funding needed for the maintenance and upgrade of the aging facility it occupies on Island Estates.
Earlier this year, the CMA estimated their need for capital at $478-thousand, and asked the city to contribute $250-thousand of that. The list of projects ranged from $228-thousand in structural repairs and refurbishment to $250-thousand of improvements that encompassed a theater, interactive computer kiosks, a food service area, a dolphin pool viewing area and offices. The CMA later added $180-thousand to their capital requirement, based largely on estimated cost increases.
But with budget cuts imposed by the Florida legislature this year and the possibility of more cuts if the January statewide property tax referendum passes, the city was reluctant to make any contribution from its General Fund. Instead, it hoped to use funds from the Penny for Pinellas infrastructure sales tax to help the aquarium.
The CMA property, a 60-year old former water treatment facility, was purchased from the city in 1986, and its deed contains a clause that reverts ownership back to the city if the property is no longer used as marine science center.
The existence of the reverter clause was hoped to justify the use of Penny for Pinellas funds, but the State of Florida Attorney General's Office ruled on November 7th that infrastructure improvements and maintenance on the CMA-owned property could not be funded by Penny for Pinellas.
During last Monday's City Council work session, Councilmembers Paul Gibson and Carlen Petersen agreed on funding ½ of the CMA's stated need, or $239-thousand, from the city's reserves, citing the organization's contribution to the community and value to Clearwater's tourism industry. Their colleagues were not as generous.
Councilmember George Cretekos, citing cutbacks in city contributions to other agencies during the 2007/08 budget process, said, "I just have a problem giving them 50-cents on the dollar… I could support $200-thousand, but not more than that."
Vice Mayor John Doran was cautious. While he called the CMA "very deserving", Doran offered his support for only $125-thousand at this time because of the uncertain outcome of the January property tax referendum. Doran implied that he would consider a larger amount after the January referendum.
Mayor Frank Hibbard, a former member of the CMA board of directors, heaped praise on the organization. "But," he said, "we're in tough times right now," and expressed his concern about the uncertain outlook for future city budgets. "I have to look at our primary function, and we have to take care of those needs first. So I can't support anything at this time until after the referendum in January," Hibbard said.
The Council discussion continued on Thursday night, with only Doran voicing a change of heart and indicating a willingness to consider more than the $125-thousand he offered on Monday.
After a curious parliamentary process of motions, amendments to motions, seconds and votes, the Council agreed to a $225-thousand grant by a vote of 4-1, with only Mayor Hibbard voting against. Coincidentally, that amount came to within $3,000 of the CMA's original estimate of repair and refurbishment costs.
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