ST. PETE BEACH — Imagine having to sit silently through a meeting in which funding for an event that your late wife started and nurtured was being questioned.
That’s what happened to Mayor Al Johnson, who had to recuse himself, and not participate or vote, when Commissioner Melinda Pletcher raised questions about the city’s cost to co-sponsor the St. Pete Beach Classic.
She expressed concerns about the city not being able to control which nonprofit groups will receive grant funds from the January event, which features a half-marathon and other races.
Johnson serves on the St. Pete Beach Classic board. The Classic was founded in February 2004 by Wendy Johnson, the mayor’s late wife. In an earlier Beacon interview, Johnson said he stays on the Classic’s board in memory of his wife, her love of running and her efforts to make the event work.
In the group’s application, organizers note the event is designed to raise money for the benefit of local charities.
Organizers added, “Hopefully $15,000 will be raised for local charities such as SPB Recreation, Gulf Beaches Historical Museum, SPB Library or The Kind Mouse.”
The only group noted on the group’s application that is outside St. Pete Beach is The Kind Mouse, a St. Petersburg nonprofit that raises money to feed chronically hungry children.
The event takes place Jan. 17-19 with a 5K, 10K and half-marathon.
At an Oct. 22 meeting, Jennifer McMahon, parks and recreation director, said the event is co-sponsored by the city, which pays $17,500 to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to provide security and close streets during the event.
Pletcher questioned the cost of $17,500 to pay for deputy sheriffs when the city does not have a voice in which groups will be given funds from the $15,000 expected to be raised. “It’s taxpayers’ money being handed over to a private group to fund charities it chooses,” Pletcher said.
McMahon said the amount of money raised each year is different and “they decide as a board where they would like to give the money to.”
Pletcher said she didn’t think historically the city had contributed at the $17,000 level, but McMahon said the city’s contribution has been $17,500 for the last three years.
Commissioner Ward Friszolowski said he thinks there are other benefits for the city from the event.
“I think this is one of those great events on St. Pete Beach that puts us on the map in a very healthy way. We get a lot of people coming in from out of town; we get a lot of residents that participate, either (to) run or volunteer,” Friszolowski said.
Commissioner Terry Finnerty said the event brings in an enormous amount of money to the city and businesses, hotels and restaurants.
“I don’t think $17,500 for this is a lot, and it’s been the same for the last three years; I don’t see that as an issue at all. It’s a very popular event that’s known all over,” she said.
Pletcher responded that she doesn’t mind spending $17,500 to host the event.
“My concern is the proceeds from the event is decided by a board that is not affiliated with St. Pete Beach. They are deciding where the proceeds from the event is going to; that’s someone’s taxpayer money we don’t have control over,” she said.
City Manager Alex Rey suggested since funds for this event are already in the recreation budget, that the funding request be approved and then the commission can discuss the larger topic of how to co-sponsor all events at a future meeting.
Pletcher said she has the same question for city funding of other events.
Funding for the Classic was approved 4-0 with Mayor Johnson recusing himself from voting.
After the gavel was passed back to him, he noted, “Do you realize how hard it is to do that?”