TREASURE ISLAND — Michael Hilla was fuming when the city took away the benches and picnic tables on Sunset Beach about two months ago.
An admitted beach bum, Hilla was convinced that the amenities were removed to discourage people, especially the homeless, from having a place to rest and enjoy the beach.
"We almost considered marching on City Hall," said Hilla, 63, of Madeira Beach. "I've been coming to this beach since 1963, and I can tell you that everyone used those benches and tables. We were all mad when they took them; it was definitely wrong for the city to do that," he said.
The city of Treasure Island had taken several recent steps to reduce the number of people loitering in and around Sunset Beach at night.
Most recently, the city passed ordinances banning overnight camping and open containers in certain public parks.
If you ask some of the locals, they'll tell you that city officials removed the beach benches as part of their overall campaign. "There was no need for them to take the benches. Homelessness wasn't really a problem, and we tend to self-police it ourselves," Hilla said.
Treasure Island City Commissioner Alan Bildz said the picnic tables and benches were only removed for repair. "The word I heard is that the benches are being fixed," he said. "I don't think they were part of any ordinance against people camping out."
But Hilla didn't buy that story. "They took them away because they didn't want people to use them, it's that simple. Why would it take two months to fix them? They just don't want people on the beach."
Another frequent Sunset Beach dweller, who would only identify herself as "Colorado," agreed, stating that the city is waging a "war against vagrants and homeless people" and that "all these new laws they passed and taking away the benches was meant to keep people off the beach."
Yet Rick Raus, the assistant director of Public Works for the city, disputed that claim.
"This is definitely not part of any 'war' against people," he said. "We removed them before those other ordinances were even passed, so the timing on that doesn't match up."
Raus also assured that the benches would be returned to their original location near the Brown Pelican parking lot on Sunset Beach.
But he's just not sure when.
"They'll absolutely be put back. Right now, we're just repairing them because people got splinters and they were unsafe."