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St. Petersburg mayor forges ahead with city's green plans

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Baker has worked steadily to build a reputation as a pragmatic but socially conscience environmental champion during his two terms in office.

Now he has begun a quiet, ambitious campaign to make St. Petersburg Florida's greenest city.

"We are already becoming that model," Baker said. "If we see a good idea that works, we just do it."

Starting this month, the city plans to install energy-efficient lighting systems at the Mahaffey Theater and South Core garages. The new lights are eight times more durable than regular lightbulbs, said Mike Connors, the city's internal services administrator.

The lighting upgrade is part of a citywide effort to convert every streetlight to energy-efficient lightbulbs over the next several years.

The city has also issued a mandate to its procurement department to purchase environmentally sound products such as low phosphate detergents and recycled paper whenever possible.

The city will seek approval from the City Council to allow developers who embrace national environmental building standards to build larger than normal structures.

The "density credits," as Connors called the program, essentially would provide incentives for developers to adopt green standards. Baker also hopes every city will run on biodiesel or ethanol fuel by August.

Baker hopes the new green standards are enough to secure St. Petersburg the honor of becoming the first Florida city to earn a gold rating from the Florida Green Building Coalition, a nonprofit group that strives to "provide a statewide green building program with environmental and economic benefits."

"Mayor Baker is taking it to the next level," said Rebecca O'Hara, legislative director of the Florida League of Cities. "He is very outspoken about St. Pete's pursuit of this. He is always willing to share information with other cities on what St. Pete has done."

Baker planted the seeds of his green reputation years ago. He led the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, which recommended the state move toward energy independence. Most recently, he was named vice chairman of Gov. Charlie Crist's Energy Action Team.

But Baker's green policies have their critics.

Baker has not signed off on the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which calls for cities to meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing global warming pollution.

And there are fiscal limits to Baker's environmentalism.

The city budgeted $500,000 for energy efficient measures this year. An additional $150,000 has been set aside in next year's budget to cover more green upgrades.

"We are not doing this and spending a lot of money and hoping it works out," Baker said. "Unless it has a four- or five-year payback, we are not doing it."

St. Petersburg also is one of the only major U.S. cities that does not offer curbside recycling.

Among Baker's reasons for opposing curbside recycling: The city would have to purchase a new fleet of trucks, which would increase the city's carbon footprint; citizens are unwilling to pay an extra fee for the service; and the city's dropoff recycling program works great.

That unflinching stance has only driven curbside recycling enthusiasts to campaign even harder for curbside recycling. Clean Water Action, a local environmental group, launched a new recycling awareness campaign Monday. As part of its effort, residents who favor curbside program will attach signs to their garbage cans that read, "Mayor Baker: Take it to the curb! I support curbside recycling."

Baker seemed unfazed by the unwanted attention when he learned of the protest last week. Curbside recycling is simply not an option, he said.

"I'm comfortable where we are," Baker said.

Reach Cristina Silva at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg mayor forges ahead with city's green plans 07/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 5:45pm]
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