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Ward I Representative – April Thanos – Monthly Report

April Thanos

April Thanos

Ward I
athanos@mygulfport.us
(727) 826-7138

MAY 2022

On May 3rd, I had a Town Hall Meeting about parking. There were about 30 people there and we had 2 guest presenters, Angelo Rao (was Traffic and Parking Operations Manager at the City of Lakeland) and Christopher Brimo, a professional Certified Planner.  We had a discussion about the types of things we could do and how the situation is now. There were many ideas, but no consensus about the need for a change or what the change would be. So for the time being we will leave things as they are. I presented the results of the meeting in writing to the council at the next council meeting.

I attended several, either in person or zoom meetings, on affordable housing. Plus, I went to an affordable housing conference. I also had several meetings and many discussions about short term rentals and how they affect the city and the housing situation. I had a presentation from Granicus who has a platform that tracks short-term rentals to see what they could offer the city and how we might be able to use them. I thought the costs were very reasonable for what they do.

Every Monday I meet with the City Manager, by phone usually, to go over the next agenda and any other items I have concern about. I also get questions answered that people have asked me recently on various topics.

Every third Tuesday, I have a table at the Tuesday market outside the Welcome Center to answer questions and help people check their voter registration status.

On May 25th, there was a meeting about homelessness in the area. This was put together by the Homeless Leadership Alliance. It was very interesting to hear what other cities and organizations are doing about this issue. We are planning to work with a couple other cities to share funding for a resource person to seek out homeless people and make sure they know all the services available to them. Our city staff – police, fire and others also do this whenever they can. There is a difference between chronically homeless and their needs and people who are recently homeless due to rising rental rates and having their rental homes sold. The second group are often employed and just can’t afford rental housing now. I have asked someone from the Alliance to speak with the council.

I try to answer all my emails and phone calls by the next day and this oftens requires some research or questions to staff. I often get stopped and asked questions whenever I am out and about and will get answers back to people if I don’t immediately know the answer.

JUNE 2022

June 1st we had a lovely flag raising for Pride Month. There was a successful Pride event that Saturday. There was also a great Art Out event at the library which I attended, organized by the LGBTQ Resource Center of the Gulfport Library.

On June 3rd there was another webinar on affordable housing. This topic is usually the first thing on the agenda with all the meetings of other cities I attend or listen to.

Deckard Technologies gave me a presentation on their short-term rental platform. It is a comparable cost to Granicus and seems to have more in depth information. It was good to have another choice and see the differences between the two companies. We already use Granicus for some other applications. Deckard is more of a data company and uses AI to scan sites and compare information between short-term rental sites, real estate listings and the property appraiser. There are also other companies which may be of interest.

We had a well attended and moving ceremony for Flag Day at Veteran’s Park on June 14th.

On June 23rd, The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council had a program on Resilient Ready Tampa Bay for an afternoon at the Marriott on Roosevelt. There were people from cities all over the region and it was great to hear that we are on the same page about the needs for this very vulnerable area. Getting consensus on the most immediate needs and the money to do them are not quite as easy. It was a very thoughtful event and very informative.

The St Pete Pride parade was on June 25th and I was on the trolley representing Gulfport. There were a lot of entries in the parade and a great crowd watching and cheering. The staff did a great job of organizing it and taking care of those on the trolley. Thank you.

JULY 2022

The Senior Center had an indoor picnic for the 4th of July holiday. Michael Fridovich and I were servers and I heard Christine Brown had helped setup. It was very well attended and the food was fabulously picnicy. The staff had this very well organized – kudos to Rachel and Walt and all the Senior Center volunteers.

Fourth of July was a hot, fun day. We had a great, typical small town parade where everyone can participate. I was with the other council members and the mayor narrated the event. Lots of beads for the onlookers. This was topped off with our usual great fireworks display. Again our city staff did a wonderful job. We have checked into doing a laser light show, but for now they are too expensive. Hopefully, the cost will come down and we can do something that won’t upset the town pets.

On July 11th, I started the Gulfport Police Academy with six others. It is a wonderful way to get to know how the department recruits and trains staff; what some of the regulations are: how the call center works and our relations with the sheriff’s department; how the police car is equipped and what it takes to pass the driving requirements for training; our neighborhood crime watch program and much more. This is the first class since covid, but more will be coming up. It is weekly for 8 weeks and will include a ride along with an officer.

I did my required four hour ethics course on July 13th. This is required of all elected officials on a yearly basis. It reminds us of the sunshine rules, how meetings should be conducted, when there is a conflict of interest and what are considered inappropriate gifts, among other things.

The Suncoat League covers cities in Pinellas, Pasco, Citrus, Hillsborough and Hernando counties. Our own Jennifer Webb is our legislative consultant.

Our 2022 Legislative priorities were:

  • The Housing Factor – Housing equity is rooted in the idea that people are happier living in a neighborhood that provides for their needs.
  • Building Safety and Recertification – We wanted legislation that would shorten the 40 year period for building recertification.
  • Resiliency and Sustainability – We support legislation that enables intergovernmental coordination and planning for coastal resiliency and sea level rise strategies, natural water quality improvements and natural resource protection.

 

The Suncoast League is also concerned with bills related to vacation rentals and how they affect local authorities, bills related to preemption of local ordinances and protecting Home Rule in general. Please contact me if you want more information on this legislative agenda. Affordable housing is one of our big objectives for next session – including homelessness. We also want to make sure net-metering for home solar energy doesn’t change to make solar less attractive.

I had a meeting with the city manager, finance director and public works director about the upcoming 2022-23 budget to go over some questions I had. This will be discussed more in upcoming council meetings. There is a copy of it on the city website for anyone to review before the upcoming meetings. Please let me know if you have concerns or come to a meeting and bring them up.

The Suncoast League of Cities had a Candidate Forum on the evening of July 25th. This was done speed dating style. The candidates moved from table to table as we asked questions that related to city issues. The goal is make sure all candidates understand our concerns, so whoever is elected knows how League Cities position on important issues to cities. There was only one judge candidate, but many of the other candidates were there. Unfortunately, there was also a NAACP candidate forum that night as well.

I am working on putting together a town hall about the housing crisis and what a city our size can potentially do to help the situation. I want to have people there to talk about what others are doing and what is reasonable for Gulfport. This will probably be in October when more people are back in town.

Please let me know how I can help you.

I am looking into renewing our trolley service when the season gets busier and potentially restarting something like the GetGo with money from PSTA. More info on that to come.

AUGUST 2022

This month started with my last few sessions of Police Academy – we drove police cars fast, shot guns (I hit the target) and went to the forensics lab. We did not get to go to the jail as there was a covid outbreak. All were very interesting evenings and well presented. I still haven’t been able to schedule my ride along, but will do it in September.

I had my regular Monday morning talks with the city manager about upcoming agenda items and anything else that I had questions about or he thought was important for me to know. We, of course, had council meetings on August 2nd and 16th

From August 11th to the 13th was the Florida League of Cities conference in Hollywood. It was my first time in Miami (Hollywood is so close) and I definitely prefer Gulfport. There were  a lot of good sessions. On the 11th, I attended my Legislative Policy Committee meeting – I’m on the Utilities, Natural Resources and Public Works committee. We went over what was accomplished in the last legislative session and will be deciding upcoming issues at our next meeting, September 16th. After that was a session on Home Rule, which is the ability for cities to decide local issues themselves.

The 12th was the busiest day.

  • First was “Florida Keeps Growing: Is Your City Ready?”. This unfortunately was geared more for areas that really have undeveloped space and how they will utilize/zone it. It didn’t have much for areas like ours that are very built out already – maybe next year.
  • The Opening General Session was interesting and had a very good speaker about making sure you make the best use of your life/time.
  • In the afternoon was “Doing More with Less: Solutions for Small Cities. This centered around getting grants from wherever possible and things the city can offer to keep staff – which is a growing problem.
  • Next was “The Science of the Story: How Voters Make Decisions”. This emphasized that people relate more to a story than to just facts, so that is the best was to get an idea across to constituents.
  • Last for the day was “Resilient Florida Bootcamp”. There is a lot of federal money around, especially for infrastructure and environmental issues. The biggest points were that you have to have a vulnerability study ready to go and have exact specifications for projects to be considered. The city manager just put in for a grant to get Gulfport a vulnerability study done after I had brought this up to council.

Saturday was Local and Regional League Breakfast meetings. Mine was with the Suncoast League (the one I go to), Manatee, Tri-Cities and Volusia Leagues. Each League spoke a bit about what they were doing and I got to mingle with people from other areas. I had spent a lot of time in the exhibition hall talking to people who might have services that would benefit Gulfport. I got literature on splash pads which I gave to Christine as she is particularly interested in that. There were also vendors that had short-term rental apps, transportation solutions and many others companies.  In the afternoon I got to explore a bit of Miami – some really tall buildings and lots of traffic, plus some interesting areas.

The regular “Ask a City Councilor” time was slow and hot, but nice that there are still people happily walking around our Tuesday markets. The next day I spent time going through all the info I had from the conference to put together a report for city council and contacted some of the vendors for more info.

I had two more presentations from short-term rental app companies and one from Freebee – they have a shuttle service similar to the Getgo service we had here for awhile. I have invited them to present to the city council in November. It’s possible we could get a grant to help fund their service.

When planning for my upcoming Town Hall, I decided first that I would concentrate on work force housing and then decide to have my town hall after Paul Ray had his on short-term rentals and after the council workshop on short-term rentals on Oct 20th. Then after more discussions and meetings – I decided to have Ingrid Bredenberg present the Visioning/Community Conversations she had proposed to council and they decided against. This way, rather than deciding what was important for my town halls, I would let the residents decide what is important for Gulfport. This will be a series of 3 or 4 town halls building on each other – but you don’t have to be at each to participate. We are hoping to gather A LOT of residents, business people and other stakeholders, so that you can all have something to say about how Gulfport is in the future. We will bring our findings to city council and they can use the input to help decide on upcoming issues.

On election day, I worked as a poll worker at the Rec Center and saw many of you voting. It was a long, fun day. I attended another zoom meeting on housing on Aug 27th which was interesting, but not much really new info. All-in-all a busy productive month!

SEPTEMBER 2022

September started off with a lot of fun at Geckfest and the parade. It was good to see so many people out having a good time! It was my first Geckofest parade due to covid and I was happy to be part of it.

We had a very inspiring and thoughtful memorial service for 9/11. It is important not to forget all that happened and how bravely many people reacted to save others – First Responders especially, but also others.

Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and the subcommittee, Tampa Bay Resiliency had an in person meeting. One of the topics was planning to make sure we have adequate shelters for storms. Some schools that have been used in the past can’t be used now due to changes to prevent active shooters. So we must find other places that can have multiple uses and especially increase the number of pet friendly shelters. They are also working on a template that cities can use to promote living shorelines.

I went to a Community Conversation in St Pete about neighborhoods. It was good to see another example for the type of Town Hall I am planning for November 14th at the Casino with Ingrid Bredenberg. We want to make sure everyone in the Gulfport community (residents, business owners, people who work here, city employees and anyone who enjoys Gulfport) has a chance to be involved in visioning for future Gulfport. I have spent a lot of time this month planning this event.

The Florida League of Cities had their Policy Committee meeting in Kissimmee. My committee,  Utilities, Natural Resources and Public Works is working on proposals we will lobby for in Tallahassee next session. One possibility is considering watersheds all one unit even if they span multiple jurisdictions so they can more easily get grants. Another proposal is for a statewide Water Resource Planning department, possibly like we have for transportation. Another issue is the lack of qualified staff for water treatment plants (and other parts of government). The proposal would be to allow reciprocal acceptance of their qualifications with other states. We are only one of three states that don’t do this. There will be more discussion of these proposals at the October 7th meeting.

On Saturday evening the 17th, I had my ride along with Officer Zack Mills. This was very interesting. We had several neighbor problems with other neighbors (apparently, very common) and another incident that required us to take someone to the hospital to be checked out. Everything was handled very professionally and it is amazing how much officers can do with the computers in their cars.

I had my regular Ask A Councilor time at the Tuesday market (third Tuesday each month from 11 to 1). This time a lot of discussion about short term rentals. I’m looking forward to it being cooler for these mornings!

The Suncoast League of Cities held their lunch meeting on the 23rd at the Casino. They have a regular travel program to go to Tallahassee multiple times during the session to see people about particular issues. I will plan to go more this year. There was discussion of affordable housing and the next meeting will concentrate on this issue and what cities can do to increase their housing stock. I did learn that affordable housing can be built on commercially zoned land.

Then there was Ian!! We were so fortunate to be missed. However, the city did a great job preparing for the worst and so did our residents and businesses! Yards were empty of furniture and other things that could blow around, windows were covered and people evacuated. We need to not take it for granted that hurricanes will miss us, because sooner or later we will get a direct hit. Hopefully, not for a long time.

OCTOBER 2022

This month started with a city council meeting and a Florida League of Cities Committee meeting. I’m on the Natural Resources and Public Works committee. We did a recap of what happened in the legislative session and started on priorities for 2023. We are looking at how to get funding for watershed areas that overlap jurisdictions, water resource planning statewide, and licensing for water and wastewater operators.

The Tampa Bay Resiliency committee is planning a large environmental conference for May 4-5, 2023 at the Thunderbird. The hope is to engage many city and county electeds and staff, so that we can work together for the region. The public can attend.

I went to my first Forward Pinellas meeting. I had until recently, not been aware that I could attend this. This agency does the planning for the county and is available for cities to help with our planning. We recently used them for our downtown plan and we have had them speak on affordable housing. Gulfport intends to be part of an affordable housing coalition and there will be presentation at the December 6th meeting.

All this month there were many meetings and time spent planning for “Gulfport on the Edge” – my town hall meeting on November 14th. We tried to make this a meeting that all council members could attend, but due to Sunshine laws this will not be possible.

Right after the second city council meeting was the workshop on Short Term Rentals. There was much discussion on the possibility of rent control, but it was decided that this would not be the best way to address the rental housing price problem. We then decided to hire another code enforcement officer and to pay for software that identifies short term rentals and can document the number of stays to be able to tell if they are complying with our regulations. Adherence to this will be on a complaint basis.

Then I was off to Seattle for 10 days to spend time with a very sick friend. While there I kept up with my emails and planning for the Town Hall. It was a busy month.

NOVEMBER 2022

During our two city council meetings this month were debates about the city “vacating” land along Clam Bayou. “Vacating” is giving city property to adjacent property owners and most commonly occurs with unused alleys. Council did vote to vacate the properties.

On November 15th, the council had a presentation from Freebee, which I am happy to send to anyone who would like to see it. They operate a free transportation service similar to GetGo which the GMC operated for a couple of years. In this case, the city would pay for the service. Currently, they have service in St Pete Beach and other Florida cities.

The Veterans were out in force on November 6th for the parade. It was a lot of fun and the weather was great!

At the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council on November 14th they discussed the regional food systems – how to make sure they are resilient and where to find more land for small gardens/farms. There was also a presentation on “living” seawalls. Typically, seawalls are flat cement that microorganisms cannot adhere to. However, a new company is making 3-D cement seawalls with all the same properties as regular ones. THey also cost the same and are installed the same, so any contractor can use them. They allow microorganisms to adhere and this promotes other sea life that keeps the water cleaner. Very innovative!!

The big event of the month was Gulfport on the Edge on November 14th at the Casino. Around 100 people were there. This took a lot of planning and many volunteers led by Ingrid Bredenberg. Participants discussed Gulfport’s Strengths, Problems, Opportunities, Threats and Uncertainties.  In addition to gathering a lot of perspectives and data, participants were asked to frame strategic questions that can guide future research and planning.  In addition to feedback about the event, people provided suggestions for actions that can be taken in the coming 12 -24 months.

I am responding to some of the questions and suggestions made as well as providing links to sources of information that are available to everyone.

Resiliency/Vulnerability Study

The city has applied for a grant to do a resiliency/vulnerability study and we are just waiting to see if we get it. The city is doing a two-year study on stormwater runoff and flooding.

Short-term rentals and Rent Control

The council had a workshop on October 20th on short-term rentals and rent control. Rent Control & Short Term Rental Workshop link.

The City of Gulfport must follow Florida laws which are very restrictive on rent control.  A city must prove there is a “housing emergency” to override the restrictions. Both St Pete and Clearwater decided that they were not going to try to prove an emergency existed, so the council didn’t want to spend money for a survey to end up with the same results.

The city is taking steps to address short-term rentals in areas they are not allowed. The council decided to purchase software that will identify short-term rentals. What we normally think of as transient housing ie. daily, weekly and/or monthly rentals are allowed only in a small area along Beach, Shore and part of Gulfport Blvd. In the rest of the city, you are allowed to rent monthly, with no more than 3 rentals less than a month per year. Most of our short-term rental properties are outside the “transient” area and the software will allow code enforcement to identify who is renting for less than a month. We are hiring a second code enforcement officer to help with this, so that it will not require so much documentation from neighbors.

Welcome to Gulfport Meetings

These meetings were not run by the city. They were led by volunteers (Gulfport Neighbors) and could be started again by anyone who wanted to do them. 

Trolley and/ Getgo  

The Gulfport trolley was stopped because it was difficult to find licensed drivers and was not cost effective for the number of riders. The city is currently fixing up a used GEMS vehicle to use instead. This vehicle doesn’t require a special driver’s license, so it will be easier to find drivers. It will be used to move people from parking areas around the city during special events and is free.

Council had a presentation from FreeBee, who operate a free ride service in St Pete Beach and other cities in Florida. The company would provide the drivers and vehicles, the city would pay and it would be free for riders within Gulfport. This would be in a similar format to GetGo which ran for a couple of years. This would not just be for special events. If you would like a copy of the presentation, just let me know and I can email it to you.

Other council members being at Gulfport on the Edge

Sunshine laws prevent council members from attending other council members’ Town Halls. In my capacity as a City Councilor, I am sponsoring these events as Town Halls.  This allows me to use City facilities and have the support of city staff to help produce these events along with a team of over 30 volunteers. 

Building Styles and Concern over “McMansions”

In the “Arts District” (between 49th and 59th south of Gulfport Blvd) there are Design Guidelines which were created in 2004 to keep new homes and buildings in character with surrounding structures.

Nearly all the new homes being built are complying with our current size/set-backs and other regulations. It is rare to have a new building ask for or get a variance to the current codes.

Current laws were made years ago.There was a Florida lawsuit over reducing setback/size of buildings, which now means that if a city tries to reduce the size, setbacks, etc., a property owner can sue that they are not getting the “highest and best use of their property”.

Removal of Trees

Gulfport has a very tree-friendly ordinance on the books. (Gulfport Tree Ordinance) However, the State pre-empted it and allowed any tree that is designated as ‘diseased or a danger” by a licensed arborist to be removed without a permit or replacing it. In the last session of the legislature the Florida League of Cities was able to amend this law to have clearer definitions – but it will be VERY difficult to get rid of it.

If a builder takes down “healthy” trees, they are required to replace them with specific size trees, depending on what was cut down. You can always cut down invasive trees. Many Laurel Oaks were planted in Gulfport over 50 years ago and they are reaching the end of their natural lives. Live Oaks live much longer and are a better replacement.

Homelessness

This is a national problem. Whenever City staff, EMTs, or police officers encounter the homeless, they are advised of all the services available to them. The City also plans to hire a social worker in conjunction with Treasure Island to help with this issue. The county and all the other cities in the area are trying to address this problem as well. There are not easy, fast fixes.

People are not allowed overnight in our parks and our police patrol for this.  They are allowed to park on the street overnight. We are working on the beach pavilion issue.

Events Promotion/Communications

The city puts out a weekly newsletter on Mondays with all the city, GMC and other events:

Gulfport Weekly Newsletter Sign-up

Affordable Housing: Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)

The city codes allow for small cottages or ADUs to be built if they follow the codes and lot requirements. Currently, you have to have a very large lot to comply with the codes.You can find more information about those requirements at Municodes on Accessory Dwelling Units.

Next Gulfport on the Edge

Please plan to attend the next Town Hall on Monday, January 30, 2023.  Gulfport on the Edge: Trends and Forces Impacting Our Region.  Participants will be bringing their expertise and information to topic-focused discussions about social, environmental, economic and other trends that are or will affect Gulfport residents and visitors. The event is free and open to the public. Register