Pinellas County Commission spends three hours on BP oil spill money wishlist
CLEARWATER — After more than three hours of talks, the Pinellas County commissioners set a path to spend $7.1 million from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
During a workshop, the board established a list of tentative projects for the money and another list that requires county staff to gather more research from cities and other organizations.
The board hopes to approve the projects later this year after residents weigh in during public meetings.
The $7.1 million will be spread around the county on a multitude of programs like youth sports, affordable housing, a charging station for electric buses, arts and park programs and capital improvements. Money for veterans and transpiration programs was also included.
While Chairman Charlie Justice led the board, he sounded like an auctioneer much of the afternoon.
"I have $150,000, do we have $200,000? he asked as the board negotiated figures for programs.
"It's a one-time shot at money. It won't be available again."
The most-spirited debate centered around $1 million for affordable housing.
"It's not a proper place to raise children in motels," commissioner Karen Seel said about families needing help.
Commissioner Ken Welch agreed, adding: "There's a crisis on our county right now."
Seel offered more appeals, and the board set aside the $1 million for programs.
Another $350,000 was directed for a ferry to connect the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa. Hillsborough County commissioners approved the project Wednesday and the City Councils of St. Petersburg and Tampa did the same on Thursday. The Pinellas County Commission will consider the idea next week.
Commissioner Dave Eggers wouldn't support the project, which the board is expected to approve on Tuesday.
"Just because everybody else is doing it, doesn't mean we have to do it," he said about partnering with the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough County on the project.
Even though the board established two lists, the projects and amounts could fluctuate once staffers complete the research.
The board made clear that the money needs to help an entire community, particularly residents in unincorporated areas, and not pay operating expenses for any program.
Some proposals were rejected because other funds could foot the bills. At times, commissioners noted the delicate balance of helping one community or group over another.
The commissioners considered a $500,000 proposal to dredge a channel in Tierra Verde.
That issue lurks across the county, Seel noted. She suggested the county buy it's own equipment for the work.
"What? What are you thinking?" Commissioner Janet Long responded in amazement.
"It's great idea," replied Eggers.
Assistant County Administrator Jacob Stowers cautioned the board that it could take several years for dredging permits. The board tabled the idea.
At the start of the meeting, Eggers raised concerns about moving the workshop across the street so staffers could better track all the figures and programs.
But that conference room didn't have the capability to televise or record the talks.
Eggers said it would have been a disservice to residents who submitted hundreds of ideas on how to spend the money.
"We asked for all this input," commissioner Pat Gerard said in support.
The group voted unanimously agreed to not go across the street.
The group's wish list included 89 projects worth nearly $23 million. The projects are spread across the county and ranged from $30,000 for hurricane preparedness to $2.6 million for affordable housing.
Since the 2010 spill devastated the gulf’s ecosystem, some want the money to only go toward environmental remedies.
Earlier this year, residents submitted more than 800 ideas through a now-closed online survey. Some common themes dominated the responses, including calls to dredge the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs; complete the Pinellas Trail loop; and pleas from several dozen respondents to buy a $750,000 forestry mower for Brooker Creek Reserve, which would thin undergrowth and cut firebreaks so controlled burns can occur.