St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Kathleen Ford tangled over paying for the Lens, the proposed pier replacement, at a debate last week. Foster said the money was use-it-or-lose-it, while Ford said the plan takes money from the city’s general funds.
"If we don't spend money on a pier, then that money does wipe into the general funds of the city or the county, and if you send it to the county, you never see it again," Foster said.
After the forum, Foster confirmed the intent of his comments to PolitiFact Florida, telling us that money needs to be spent or part of it will be lost to the county. We decided to check it out. (We looked at Ford's comments in a separate fact-check.)
First, some background: In 1969, the Florida Legislature passed the Community Redevelopment Act. The intent was to allow a city and a county to target a specific geographic area -- say, a downtown -- for improvements. The law allows local officials to create a Community Redevelopment Area, so that a portion of property taxes collected in the area can be used for major development projects there.
In 1981, the city of St. Petersburg and Pinellas County set up such an area with the goal of paying for projects downtown. Each time the property taxes within the area rise above the 1981 level, that additional money goes into an improvement fund, usually called TIF, which stands for tax increment financing.
We should note that a pier project of some kind has long been on the drawing board. The inverted pyramid made its debut in 1973 and underwent a major renovation in 1987. Since at least 2005, city officials have been looking at either another renovation or a total replacement, paid for with TIF money.
Community Redevelopment Areas usually only last 30 years, and then the districts dissolve. But in 2005, the Board of County Commissioners granted the city a 30-year extension until 2035, said Ken Welch, a Pinellas County commissioner.
Right now there’s about $50 million in TIF money available for a pier project, with about $37 million of that intended for construction. If the money isn’t spent by 2035, only then could the county reclaim its 44 percent share. The city would take the remaining money.
We should note that city leaders have never supported abandoning the pier without a replacement. Refurbishment money would likely come from the TIF fund.
Voters will approve or reject the Lens on Aug. 27. If the Lens fails and a different pier project goes forward, the same method of financing would apply, Welch said.
So Foster said that if money isn’t spent on a pier, it will go back to the city and county. He’s technically right. But that doesn’t happen for another 22 years, in 2035. The odds of the city not spending the money -- on the Lens, a different construction project or a refurbishment of the inverted pyramid -- are slim. We rated Foster’s claim Half True.