MADEIRA BEACH — Unless a legal dispute with Pinellas County is resolved, starting Feb. 16 visitors to the county-owned beach park will be able to park for free, but they won't be able to use the public bathrooms.
The fight is over which governmental body is financially responsible if someone drowns or is otherwise seriously injured while visiting the beach at 14400 Gulf Blvd.
For 26 years, the city has maintained the county beach and collected parking fees from city-owned parking meters. After deducting costs, the city and the county split the profits according to a complicated formula.
Annually, the city makes about a $5,000 profit from the parking meters.
Both the city and the county want a new contract, but can't agree on division of liability.
The city wants its liability capped, as in the past, at $100,000. The county wants the city to assume complete liability.
"I don't care how much income you get out of the beach property. Don't waive sovereign immunity because it could bankrupt you," City Attorney Michael Connolly told the City Commission earlier this month.
"I agree, it would ruin the city," said Mayor Pat Shontz.
City Manager W.D. Higgenbotham Jr. said the "loss of revenue doesn't even approach the potential liability."
Last year, Connolly suggested the agreement be revised to better define the $100,000 limitation on the city's liability at the park. After a series of meetings with county officials, the county rewrote the park maintenance agreement, but did not include the liability language the city requested.
As a result, Connolly has notified Pinellas County that the city will cancel its maintenance contract with the county as of Feb. 16.
At that time, Connolly said, the city will remove all parking meters from the park, cancel all insurance policies covering the beach property, end all janitorial and cleaning services of the bathrooms and public areas, turn off electricity, water and garbage services to the park, and stop maintaining any of the county park property or its facilities.
In a related matter, the commission approved Tuesday a new ordinance that bars city residents from using their free parking passes at the county beach — a change required by the county.
The free city passes can be used at all other city parking lots, however, including at John's Pass Village and the Archibald Memorial Beach Park.
The change to the city policy may be moot, however, if the city-owned parking meters at the county beach park are removed. If that happens, parking would be free for everyone.
Higgenbotham told the commission Tuesday that at the "close of business" on Feb. 16, the city will "lock the rest rooms" and cover the parking meters so they will be inoperative. "It is our plan to cease maintaining the park," Higgenbotham said.
As of Friday, the county still had not responded to the city's letter.