News Column

Fla. Gulf Coast Creates Wish Lists Using BP Oil Spill Fines

Feb. 25, 2013

Anna M. Phillips, Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.

No one knows exactly how much money Florida's gulf coast counties will get from penalties BP paid as a result of its 2010 oil spill, or when, but the requests are piling up.

St. Petersburg wants more than $44 million to improve its wastewater collection system. Clearwater wants $55 million to expand its sewer system. And Tampa's wish list includes more than $21 million for energy conservation initiatives.

The demands are coming from the 23 Florida coastal counties in the Gulf Consortium, the group that eventually will decide which projects to fund with the billions of dollars that BP is expected to pay in fines.

That money will come to counties courtesy of the RESTORE Act, which was passed in 2012 and directs most of the penalties to U.S. Gulf Coast projects dealing with environmental and economic restoration.

The idea, said Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala, who is vice chairwoman of the consortium, is to fund regional projects that couldn't be accomplished otherwise, not to plug budget holes.

That hasn't stopped some cities and counties from asking for money for small projects.

Bradenton requested $250,000 for a new street sweeper. St. Petersburg wants $900,000 for an "underwater feature" for the new pier it plans to build. Hernando County commissioners requested $350,000 to improve a parking lot. And Clearwater asked for $300,000 to expand a golf course pond.

"That's not going to make the cut," Latvala said. "It looks like some cities just went to their CIP (capital improvement plan) list and didn't put a lot of thought in it."

St. Petersburg submitted 34 proposals, most of which are ecological. The city wants money to repair Lassing Park beach, Bay Vista Park beach and North Shore Park beach. It also wants to expand its reclaimed-water system and improve water quality in the northwest and southwest. Another item on its wish list: $3 million for a marine research facility.

Tampa, which put in 15 proposals, also asked for funding to extend reclaimed-water mains to other parts of Hillsborough County. But one of its requests stands out as particularly odd. The city asked for more than $55 million for public safety initiatives.

Latvala said she plans to focus on improving water quality in Tampa Bay. The bay has become cleaner in recent years, she said, thanks to millions of dollars in investments, but sewage treatment plants continue to dump waste into it.

"We just can't keep spending money to clean up messes rather than fixing the sources of the problem," she said.

Source: (c)2013 Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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