CLEARWATER — Here's probably the most bizarre casualty of shrinking government budgets you'll hear.
The city of Clearwater can no longer afford to fly the American flag.
Clearwater's parks and recreation director ordered the removal of 13 flagpoles from across the city this week saying budget cuts have made it impossible to properly care for the flags.
"Over the last three years, the parks and recreation staff has been reduced by 25 percent,'' explained director Kevin Dunbar. "When you have a flagpole, you have certain responsibilities. The flag has to be lit at night, if a flag has a rip in it, it has (to be removed). We don't have the staff to monitor these things anymore.''
So this week, Dunbar had city workers pull the poles out of the ground. The last flagpoles were removed Friday.
It appears to be the first time the American flag has been yanked from a government facility because of budget problems, according to a search of U.S. newspaper reports.
The distinction was almost immediately loathed by city residents, veterans and even elected members of the City Council.
How much can maintaining the flag cost, they wondered.
Why couldn't volunteers take over for the city, they asked.
Why wasn't the City Council consulted?
"It sounds preposterous to me,'' said George Wiltshire, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of Clearwater. "I can't believe a municipality the size of Clearwater can't afford to maintain flagpoles."
Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who was unaware city flagpoles had been removed, said the decision would be discussed at a Monday city work session.
City Council member George Cretekos said the policy will have to be reconsidered.
"The flag means an awful lot to 99.9 percent of the people,'' said Cretekos, who volunteered to care for the flags if the city could not.
Dunbar said the flagpoles were removed only at facilities controlled by the parks and recreation department — the flag still flies at City Hall, for instance — and only if the flag was on site for display purposes only.
A flagpole will remain at the E. C. Moore Complex because during softball tournaments "we play the national anthem,'' Dunbar said, but flagpoles were removed from a nature park and from the beach at Sand Key.
The flag will stay at Countryside Recreation Center because during summer camp children recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning before beginning the day's activities, but has been removed from the Long Center, a swimming and recreation facility in north Clearwater.
Dunbar said his staff has been cut from 247 employees in 2006 to 191 today, meaning resources have to be shifted.
The explanation baffled most.
"I understand what drove him to do this, but he's wrong,'' Cretekos said.
Added Jay Dugan, a resident of Clearwater for 22 years:
"I think it's a shame they're coming down now. Our country is in a crisis. The country needs to pull together. To have our flag taken away is not a good thing."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Eileen Schulte can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.