Helter Skelter Handout? The City of St. Petersburg’s “Fighting Chance Fund”

On April 3rd, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announced the creation of the city’s “Fightning Chance Fund” (FCF) pursuant to the mayor’s emergency authority under section 2-426(i) of the City Code. The city  says that the FCF was created to “provide capital for St. Petersburg’s most vulnerable businesses” during the  pandemic.

However, many important questions remain unanswered about the FCF and how the money will flow. For example, almost 80% of the funds are likely to go to businesses, not workers. And by what criteria where “vulnerable” businesses in some sectors made eligible for funds but not vulnerable businesses in other sectors?

Approximately $6.8 million allocated will be provided to “about 1,000 restaurant, bar, retail, and service-based businesses and their more than 3,000 eligible employees.” This will happen on a “first-submitted and correctly completed application basis,” the city says.

Since the application forms will only become available this morning, it sounds like it’s going to be a free-for-all, and in more ways than one.

The Guardian made a public records request for that application form, even if it only existed in a draft form. After one full business day, the city had yet to produce that one electronic record. Can we expect such “hiding of the ball” during the FCF process as well? If so, expect the administration process of the limited FCF funds to also be corrupt.

Editor’s note: shortly after this article was published, both the business application form and the individual application form became available on the city’s FCF page. The eligibility criteria also changed, leading to more questions. We will have a follow-up article.

Whatever information businesses and individuals provide to the city will become public records, subject to disclosure to anyone requesting that information. In its information flyers for businesses and for individuals, the city implied that applicants may submit a “Request for Exemption from Public Records.”

However, which public records are exempt or not exempt from disclosure is specified by Florida Statutes. The city cannot honor any “requests” for exemption.

Pete Boland

“We don’t have any concern about our finances becoming a part of public record,” said Pete Boland. “I think it comes with the territory if you’re seeking public money.” Boland is the co-owner of the newly opened Mary Margaret’s Olde Irish Taverne, located at 29 3rd Street North.

Boland, a career restaurant industry professional, also co-owns The Galley, located at 27 4th Street. The Galley’s employee count is over the 25 person limit in order to be eligible to receive FCF funds.

But does the city mean 25 FTE’s (full-time equivalents) or just 25 employees, period? The city’s information doesn’t say.

“We have encouraged our employees to seek the funds,” Boland said. “This is an unconscionably difficult time for our industry, we’re all just clawing along to survive. The free for all nature of the FCF process is not ideal, but I think if you’re in our business now, and you’re not trying to do everything you can to stay afloat, and not seeking whatever beneficial programs that are available, then that’s kinda on you.”

“We pay an awful lot in sales taxes, matching taxes, and income taxes, so I think if they’re offering you money, you gotta go get it,” Boland added.

Many types of businesses are suffering now: car washes, mobile car detailers, and dentists, just to name a few.

However, none of those types of businesses are eligible to apply for FCF monies, even if they are able to prove that they are objectively more “vulnerable” than long established businesses who are eligible.

Apart from city funding, the Pinellas Community Foundation (PCF) has been accepting donations to the FCF since the day the fund was announced.  On their own website, the PCF says that it “provides grants to carefully vetted 501(c)(3) nonprofit agencies.”

Given that the city is not a 501(c)(3), we asked City Communications Director Ben Kirby how the city and PCF intend to resolve that apparent stumbling block without jeopardizing the PCF’s tax exempt status? Kirby did not answer that question directly.

“Our legal team is completing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the PCF,” Kirby said. “I will provide it to you as soon as it is completed.”

We had not received the MOU from Kirby by the time of publication, which means that the PCF has been raising money for the FCF for six days without any written agreement about how the money is to get from the PCF to the FCF.

Ben Kirby

“The Pinellas Community Foundation (PCF) are fundraising professionals, whereas city staff generally are not,” Kirby said. “The PCF is taking zero commission and will disburse to us upon our request after the agreement has been signed.”

With the maximum grant amount being $500 for individuals and $5,000 for businesses,  the $6.8 million figure and some simple math shows that the city intends to give the maximum amounts to the 1,000 businesses and 3,000 employees the city says it expects will apply. It also means that almost 80% of the funds would go to businesses, not workers.

Will all applicants receive funds, or will the city run out of funds? Why is a “first to the trough” method used to distribute the funds rather than some lottery-based method? What criteria were used to decide what types of business were eligible to receive funds? Those aren’t the only questions.

How can we be sure that the process is clean? Will the mayor’s political supporters magically receive funds while his critics equally magically receive nothing?  Will haste make waste? Or will the program turn out to be a economic and political winner?

As always….the Guardian reports and our readers decide. Like our Facebook page to find out when we publish articles.

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