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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Former Pinellas lands chief lets 'er rip on budget cuts

16

August

Bruce Rinker, the former chief of Pinellas lands division, has penned a letter to the Times (and he shared it with some county staffers) over the dismantling of the agency that oversees preserves. Citing budget cuts, County Administrator Bob LaSala proposes reducing and breaking up the environmental management department, sending its remaining pieces to other departments, such as parks.

"I suspected we might be hearing from him," wrote environmental management department director Will Davis (slated for layoff in September) on Friday.

Did they.

Rinker compares the "disconcerting calm" from environmentalists to the outcry over proposals to build ballfields and utility projects inside Brooker Creek Preserve, even his suggestion to change its title from preserve to management area. Rinker's assessments aren't pretty:

"Virtually ignoring all legitimate staff suggestions for alternative budget trimming, County Administrator Robert LaSala has steamrolled his austerity agenda through Commission meetings, public hearings, and staff gatherings for the past couple of years like a self-appointed hatchet man with a golden parachute.  After inflicting severe damage, rolling back staff numbers countywide to levels not seen since the 1980's, he can escape with what appears to be a cushy severance package at any time.  One of his favorite aphorisms is to 'kick the can down the road.'  Perhaps it's time to kick his can down the road, the severance package notwithstanding.

"Through all this, where are those vociferous environmentalists who were so active just a few years ago?"

LaSala has repeatedly maintained the cuts are needed to balance severe revenue shortfall because of the decline in property taxes. Environmental management lost out, relatively, to other departments less severely cut, based on the priorities of board members. His budget includes adding $3 fees at preserves and parks, and a $5 fee at Fort De Soto Park, to park. Commissioners have suggested they'll go along with the cuts and fees.

Full letter on the jump.

David DeCamp, Times staff writer

Subject: Shameful Silence

Dear Editor:
With the devastating economic news from Florida, particularly from friends and colleagues in Pinellas County, I have struggled for months to sum my reaction to the disconcerting calm from the area's most vocal environmentalists about the pending extinction of the Environmental Lands Division.
In Spanish, it's a compelling term: "vergonzoso silencio."  Shameful silence.
From September 2004 to July 2009, I was the director of the award-winning Division, working with a dedicated staff of nearly 50 people, an incredible army of 500+ volunteers, and -- at one time -- 10 diligent law enforcement officers.  During the middle portion of my tenure, my staff and I were harangued almost daily by a handful of local environmentalists about all sorts of issues that we had inherited from a previous administration including a ballfield and a therapeutic horseback riding center.  To be fair, I also added to the firestorm inadvertently by proposing a forest canopy walkway at the Brooker Creek Preserve (to be built via grants and donations, not public funds) and by proposing that we drop the word, preserve, from the 16,000 acres managed by the Division and substitute instead the term, management area.  My point was "truth in advertising" since none of the Division's holdings were truly preserves in the State's most densely populated county.  Simply because I proposed the latter for consideration, one raucous environmentalist demanded that I be fired on the spot.  Others were horrified that we would consider the merits of any project that detracted from what they perceived to be the "pristine" nature of those 16,000 acres.  Even an editor, a columnist, and a reporter from this esteemed paper were among those who ranted against us.  And this we endured for nearly two years before the storm abated.  Yet, as public servants, we staff members had to walk a fine line between our superiors in County Administration and the nearly one million citizens of the County.  At times we were simply unable (but not unwilling) to respond.
Now the Division faces something much more ruinous: the extinction of the entire Division.  Due to ill-advised budget cuts, all the law enforcement officers are gone, all the educators are gone minus one, all the research staff are gone, all the interns are gone, most of the operations staff are gone, and most of the administrative support staff are gone.  With just a handful of staff remaining, the Division is likely to be absorbed by the County's Parks Department.  I cannot imagine a more foolhardy solution to current economic concerns.  Similarly, can you imagine subsuming the U.S. National Parks System under the U.S. Forest Service?  Though complementary, their missions are entirely separate.  This is emphatically true for Pinellas County's Environmental Lands Division and its Parks Department.  Since 1998, the mission of the Division has emphasized ecology, not recreation.  The mission of the Parks Department strongly emphasizes recreation over ecology.  In other words, the Division is focused on natural systems management in an urban setting, and the Parks Department is focused on people management in an outdoor context.  These are complementary, but very different missions.  For those few Division staff members who will remain in their jobs for FY2011, it may be a matter of time before their positions disappear, too, when the county faces future budget cuts.
Virtually ignoring all legitimate staff suggestions for alternative budget trimming, County Administrator Robert LaSala has steamrolled his austerity agenda through Commission meetings, public hearings, and staff gatherings for the past couple of years like a self-appointed hatchet man with a golden parachute.  After inflicting severe damage, rolling back staff numbers countywide to levels not seen since the 1980's, he can escape with what appears to be a cushy severance package at any time.  One of his favorite aphorisms is to "kick the can down the road."  Perhaps it's time to kick his can down the road, the severance package notwithstanding.
Through all this, where are those vociferous environmentalists who were so active just a few years ago?  Why are they not fighting for every staff member, every dollar, every resource of the Division?  I stayed as long as I could, helping with a nearly seamless transition for the current director of the Division: an outstanding, thoroughly professional man who has given heart and soul to help the Division survive these dark days.  But where are all those citizens who previously ranted and raved about the preserves and management areas?  Their silence is shameful through this campaign of extinction from Mr. LaSala's lofty offices.
I strongly and respectfully encourage the County's Commissioners, all dedicated politicians who know the premium of wild spaces in densely urbanized environments, to scrutinize Mr. LaSala's campaign and restore the award-winning Environmental Lands Division to its previous status as a "jewel in the crown" for the County.  There are other creative ways to trim budgets than complete programmatic extinction.  I also strongly and respectfully encourage the County's environmentalists to act up and move their political machinery as they exhibited so effectively in the recent past.  Perhaps even this esteemed paper can once again lead the charge!  Let's turn a shameful silence into a clamor of triumph on behalf of Pinellas County's unparalleled natural resources!
Respectfully yours,

H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

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[Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 3:41pm]

    

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