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BP sending $30 million to seven Panhandle counties; Pinellas left out

TALLAHASSEE — Seven Panhandle counties celebrated Monday after getting a $30 million marketing and tourism grant from BP, but the happiness did not extend to Pinellas County.

Gov. Rick Scott and BP spurned Pinellas beaches by not securing more funds for the region since a $1.15 million grant in August, said D.T. Minich, Pinellas County's tourism director.

The Panhandle counties may have taken a "direct hit" from the oil spill, Minich said, but the whole state suffered from a perception of widespread damage.

"I really feel strongly that this money could have been used more effectively for promoting the entire state and the entire Gulf Coast region," Minich said. "No one asked us if we were still having problems."

Scott announced the BP grant ahead of the disaster's April 20 one-year anniversary with a cast of lawmakers from Escambia, Santa Rosa, Franklin, Okaloosa, Gulf, Bay and Walton counties, saying he signed agreements last week that establish a policy for how the local tourism development councils will spend the money. To date, BP has paid Florida $82 million for seafood testing and tourism.

Scott thanked BP for "stepping up," though he called it a "small step on the road to recovery."

"It's very important that we get the tourism season going well," Scott said.

The governor's office is working with the Legislature on a possible state lawsuit against BP for Florida's lost revenues in 2010.

"Nothing we've done so far prevents us from filing a claim, and we'll be prepared to file if that's what it takes," said his spokesman, Lane Wright. "But today is evidence that BP wants to be part of the solution."

In the Senate on Monday, lawmakers focused their frustrations on oil spill claims czar Kenneth Feinberg, who oversees BP's $20 billion escrow fund and once again declined an invitation to talk about his claims process.

Feinberg was to appear before the Senate Agriculture Committee, but apologized in a letter for "scheduling conflicts" and promised to meet with the senators soon.

"It concerns me that Mr. Feinberg cannot make necessary arrangements to appear before this committee," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.

Feinberg had announced changes to improve efficiency and transparency within his oil spill claims process during a February hearing before a House committee and after meetings with Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi.

The no-show left the Senate committee chairman, Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, mulling other options to get Feinberg to Tallahassee again, including a subpoena.

"Even though he's disappointed the committee members, we'd accept his apology if he were to come to the next meeting," if there is one, Siplin said in an interview.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, said Feinberg insulted Florida by refusing to meet with lawmakers again.

"What good is it going to do to subpoena somebody who really doesn't care?" he said.

Katie Sanders can be reached at (850)224-7263 or ksanders@sptimes.com.

BP sending $30 million to seven Panhandle counties; Pinellas left out 04/11/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 11, 2011 10:37pm]
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