Largo Commission Rejects Tobacco Ban, Golf Course Bailout
By Leo Coughlin
LARGO - The City Commission at its regular meeting Tuesday night postponed any action on barring the hiring of people who use tobacco and rejected the idea of bailing out the city's golf course, which is evidently without funds.
These were just two items on a jam-packed agenda that did ensure that Police Chief John Carroll will be on the job until 2014 and settled the question of an operator for the coffee shop at the library.
But in approving more than $66,000 for fitness equipment for the new $15 million (borrowed funds) Community Center, the six commission members in favor evidently did not have saving money in mind in these hard times.
Only Commissioner Curtis Holmes pointed out that within a 10-minute walk from the City Hall complex on Highland Avenue there will now be three expensive fitness centers.
There is one already in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) building at the entrance to the Police Department parking lot and another one across the street at the Highland Recreation site. This latest center just gilds the lily in a city where the attitude seems to be "plenty more where that came from."
As it is, something like $565,000 is allocated for furniture, fixtures and equipment at the new Community Center, which, according to some comments made at Tuesday's meeting, is there for the benefit of residents of a neighboring residential site.
Mayor Pat Gerard said she agreed with Holmes on the extravagance of fitness centers, but she wound up joining five others in voting for the expenditure, with Holmes alone in opposition.
The commission also approved an elaboration of the double dip Delayed Retirement Option Program (DROP), another expensive feature for the city that offers a tremendous money bonanza to police and fire employees.
Approval of the modified DROP is not primarily aimed at enriching anyone (although it does have that effect), but to keep Carroll for two years more than would have ordinarily happened.
The DROP works like this - It is an option for police and fire & rescue employees who have 23 years of service and can choose to retire, but who continue working for up to five years and have their retirement income deposited in an escrow investment account which they cannot access until their employment terminates.
In effect, the employees in this category are collecting two paychecks.
The city wanted to extend the working time by two years up to seven years. This will allow Carroll to be in his job until 2014 instead of being forced to step down in 2012.
He succeeded the retiring Lester Aradi in June and was already collecting pension money at that time, money not going directly to him right now, but accumulating in a fund that he will get when he does retire.
It could be a considerable sum because retirement pay is 75 percent of the pay at the time the DROP is exercised.
An example would be an officer with 23 years or more of service and with a salary of $100,000 who gets a retirement stipend of $75,000 a year. In such an example, after seven years, the person would collect $525,000 plus whatever interest the account earned - at a modest 3 percent compounded over those seven years the grand total in departing the city could amount to something like $675,000.
One action Tuesday night that set off much discussion because it is so startling and could face a legal challenge if it is ever adopted is the idea of establishing a tobacco free hiring policy.
Commission discussion made clear that this prejudicial stance is questionable to begin with and is fraught with a riot of questions so it has been put aside for further study.
Among the many questions are how would it be enforced away from the work place? Would a person once hired be subject to inspection or testing to see if he or she smoked while away from work?
Susan Sinz, Human Resources director, said the move would save on health care costs and she pointed out that the city's police and fire fighters are already bound not to use tobacco. However, those employees have agreed to this while the proposed policy would impose the rule on prospective employees.
As an observer pointed out, "How about alcohol use? The most dangerous drug of all which happens to be legal causes more health problems and other related problems than any other habit indulged in by people." Holmes raised the question of obesity in pointing out that the policy is a slippery slope.
The commission decided to discuss the issue further at some future unspecified date.
The question of a vendor to operate the coffee shop at the library has been settled with the approval of R.G.'s Restaurant to provide food and beverages.
Called the Bookmark Café, the snack area opened in July 2005, with the franchise given to the boyfriend of a former member of the City Commission.
The operator eventually became a woman who took over in March 2006, but because she made a slip-up in the process that would have automatically renewed her presence, a new operator was sought.
Very favorable terms greet the new vendor. There will be no rent for the first three months, then the payment goes to $800 for nine months before being eventually raised to $1,000 a month in 2012.
In one surprise Tuesday, the commission turned down a $20,000 bailout for the golf course, which is described in an accompanying memo as being "illiquid," which commonly means broke.
An explanation in the same memo which approaches the tenor of a pasquinade says "To clarify, the projected deficit is a cash deficit, not a fund balance deficit. The golf course…will resort a positive fund balance…at year end." Sort of a "house poor" situation, one might say.
The city was due to get $20,000 from Partners n Progress for help to the Cultural Center but the person doing the presenting could not be present. The sum represents about two weeks of what taxpayers shell out to keep the doors open at the Cultural Center in an example of the many supporting the entertainment of the few.
And in what seems to be an ongoing exercise, Norton Craig and his wife, Shirley, presented to the city two paintings for display in the library.
One observer commented, "The library has become the Craig art gallery." The Craigs ingratiated themselves when he first showed up to work here by presenting artwork.
Return to Current Edition