Which Rick is worse at managing the city's piggy bank?
It may have been the final debate in the nearly six-month long trek that has been St. Petersburg’s most expensive, most scrutinized and, likley, most bitter mayoral race in its 114-year history.
Mayor Rick Kriseman and former mayor Rick Baker grappled on well-trod ground: the future of the Tampa Bay Rays, sewage woes, climate change and whether a non-partisan race should constantly invoke Donald Trump.
The hour-long debate Wednesday at the Sunshine Center drew about 40 people and just two reporters from the Tampa Bay Times and floridapolitics.com. Times metro columnist John Romano was there, too. The overflowing high-energy crowds and TV cameras that marked the numerous forums and debates before the Aug. 29 primary were a distant memory.
The news of the night was Baker’s ambivalance about the city’s universal curbside recycling program.
But the two Ricks also took up where they left off last week at a Disston Heights forum on a topic that may only quicken the pulse of those few dozen hardy souls who show up at the city’s budget summit in the dog days of summer each year.
Who is a worse steward of the city’s reserves?
Baker launched the attack first, reminding the audience that Kriseman has temporarily borrowed $7.6 million from the economic stability fund and unappropriated Water Resource Department fund balances to pay for sewer improvements. The mayor has said the city will replace that money when it issues bonds early next year.
“We didn’t take money out of the reserves to balance the budget. We wanted to get started right away on the sewer upgrade. So we took the money out while we’re getting the bonds drafter and once the bonds come back that money is going back in to pay the reserves,” Kriseman said.
Baker scoffed at Kriseman’s accounting.
“I’m glad that he’s going to borrow money to pay back the reserves that he has taken out. That’s what you said,” Baker said.
Kriseman also repeated a claim he had made last week that Baker had done something similar when he was mayor between 2001 and 2010.
“In 2009, Mr. Baker used reserves for the upgrade of Albert Whitted, which we’re still paying off today,” Kriseman said.
Baker borrowed $1.5 million from the economic stability fund in 2009 to pay off a loan taken out by the airport. That money was to be paid back from future airport revenues, some of which is still outstanding, said Budget Director Tom Greene earlier this week.
Baker said the mayor’s claim was disingenuous. He had bolstered the city's reserves when he was mayor, Baker said.
“If you go back and read the reconciliation, which I have, I put $6 million into reserves in 2009. A million of that I used to pay off existing debt at Albert Whitted. So that year, there was a net increase in the emergency stability fund of $5 million. I more than tripled that fund when I was mayor,” Baker said.
Kriseman added $500,000 to the economic stability fund in this year’s budget. In past years, he has added between $500,000 and $1,000,000 each year since becoming mayor in 2014.
After several minutes of such granular fiscal fisticuffs, Times political editor Adam Smith put an end to it.
“When a candidate says, “Go back and read the reconciliation, it’s time to move on,” Smith said, prompting giggles in the audience.