You may have noticed, as I did, that the U.S. 41 median south of downtown Brooksville — once covered by a blanket of dense if sickly evergreen shrubs — is now a bare expanse of mulch.
Wondering why the gateway to our city suddenly looked like the floor of a gerbil cage, I asked City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha what the deal was.
It's a pretty interesting story, she told me, especially if you like tales of otherwise reasonable people being twisted into knots by the politics of a large bureaucracy, in this case the state Department of Transportation.
It begins with junipers, the knee-high coniferous shrubs, and their failure to thrive. Since they were planted about five years ago, after the road's widening, city of Brooksville maintenance workers continually had to uproot old, dying bushes and replace them.
Finally, last summer, the state DOT offered the city a permanent solution — a $150,000 grant that would allow the city to redesign and replace landscaping on U.S. 41, and expand it on the State Road 50 truck bypass.
The city's plan seemed reasonable: Hire a landscape architect and, when the plan was ready, pull browning junipers out of the median and replant new, presumably hardier, shrubs.
Not so fast, said John Simpson, landscape architect at DOT's Tampa office: Before the city could get money to beautify the medians, it had to, well, beautify the medians.
"The beds should be weeded, diseased or dead junipers removed, and empty areas remulched to match the balance of the bed,'' Simpson wrote in an e-mail on Oct. 17.
Norman-Vacha compared it to requiring a road to be repaved before agreeing to repave it.
Okay, the cost to Brooksville is minimal, especially now that our perspective has been permanently altered by the numbing figures attached to war debts, bank bailouts and, ultimately, our national debt ($10.7 trillion and counting).
The city was able to do the required work with its own maintenance crew. And, more than likely, this will all work out in the end. The city's presprucing-up sprucing up has passed state inspection, and the new greenery should be in place within a couple of months.
But what struck me was the reasoning coming from a state department that, with an $8.2 billion budget this year, routinely makes decisions that do have a big financial impact.
Simpson didn't refer to department policy in his Oct. 17 e-mail, but seemed most concerned about the need to avoid public embarrassment. If a government agency can be said to have a backside, it sounded like he was covering it:
"The situation is of particular concern since a reporter's accusation of the Department 'throwing good money after bad' when discovering that we were preparing to fund a follow-up project for a city (Port Richey) that had allowed their past year's project to become unsightly due to lack of maintenance.''
That's the real issue, lack of maintenance, said DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson: "It's been like that for months. … We just don't want to see unsightly medians.''
Though Norman-Vacha disagreed, Carson might be right. I don't know because I never inspected the medians that closely. I just know what I saw driving by. And, personally, I preferred the dying junipers.