Largo's Rec Department Is a Fearless Spender In Very Perilous Times
by Leo Coughlin
LARGO - When it comes to spending taxpayers' money, Largo's Recreation, Parks and Arts Department is no slacker.
Whatever clever people can conceive for the entertainment of Largo residents apparently knows no bounds in the Rec department.
Its latest expenditure is for building a new Community Center, a project that has been promoted for a long time, but the financial details, kept a closely guarded secret, were not known until two weeks ago.
When city staff members came to the City Commission's work session November 10 they put on a dog and pony show of the amenities planned for the new center.
Again, here, no extravagance is being spared. Largo has become the equivalent of a year-around Catskills resort with plenty of activities on tap.
But it is after all, taxpayer money so the question of dollars did come up.
"Is the project fully funded?" Commissioner Curtis Holmes, a newcomer and already making waves, asked Henry Schubert, an assistant city manager, who obviously did not expect this question to interrupt his smooth presentation of architects' drawings.
"Yes, it has been budgeted," Schubert replied. But budgeting something and having the means to pay for it are two different things.
Holmes pressed on and lo and behold, no, it turns out, the project is not fully funded. Money for the Community Center project must be borrowed. And even here the picture is cloudy because the amount needed and the interest rate and what other items are being thrown in are not fully revealed yet.
Borrowing the money amounts to deficit spending, continuing the management disaster that has unfolded since Steve Stanton departed as city manager.
Making some observers even more aghast is that borrowing $10 million is now talked about, but a $15 million number is lurking in the picture. So even more spending is being contemplated in a time of severe financial distress with the city facing a monumental budget crush.
Budget talking will begin in just a few months and that situation, according to all hands, is going to be bloody.
Move ahead one week from the November 10 meeting to last week's regular meeting and again money came up in reference to the planned Community Center and again there was confusion, at least to those listeners who are familiar with plain English.
In the plans associated with the new center is a connector road to the Highland Recreation site ($2.5 million). Also not accounted for in the $10 million city officials say will be borrowed is the interest.
Kim Adams, the city's financial director, guessed interest could range from 3.75 to 4.5 percent and then said it would run to $200,000 a year. Based on a $10 million loan that would be 2 percent interest. Further confusion.
Backing up the loan will be the city's expected receipt of Penny for Pinellas funds. Already, a goodly portion of that money yet to reach Largo's treasury has been committed.
And when Commissioner Mary Black started to range into questions about Penny for Pinellas funds she was brought up short by Mayor Pat Gerard who pontificated that under discussion was the Community Center not capital improvement projects involving Penny for Pinellas money.
It is clear that whatever the plans and ideas are for the Community Center they have already been agreed on - albeit sight unseen - and Gerard was brooking no upsetting the applecart already constructed by The Hive.
One of the toughest jobs a fellow had to do was performed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who, at his father's behest, had the task of giving money away - designating to whom and what huge funds would go.
Largo's Rec department has now taken up that burden locally, figuring out how many types of entertainment it can spend money on for residents.
"Apparently, the basic purpose of a city and what it is supposed to provide has been overlooked," one veteran observer said.
Adams last week promised that there would be a 20 percent increase in sewer fees next year and more increases of that order in the years go come.
But Rec and Parks is shelling out $95,000 to something called Tutterow Dancers, $19,500 for a swing dance program, $20,000 for "celebrity showcase," $13,900 for aerobics and on and on to the tune of more than $220,000 - and that is just the major items.
But that is chicken feed in the department's $25 million budget.
"Wait'll the folks get those sewer bills and other tax increases," one observer said. "They won't feel like doing much dancing."
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