TARPON SPRINGS — The sponge industry has been the pulse that keeps things moving in Tarpon Springs.
When the boats return from weeks of pulling up the sponges from the ocean's floor, they anchor at the city's dock and become an instant tourist attraction.
Understanding the importance of the sponge to the city's coffers and attractiveness, the boats have been allowed to dock at no charge. But concerned now that boats are sitting idle for months on end and not doing any active sponging, the City Commission wants to force those that are not making regular trips from their docking spaces.
"We want rules that will be fair, but rules that will be a way for us to weed out the people that are actually doing the sponging and those who are not," said City Manager Mark LeCouris. "We want to set the rules so everyone knows them to have the privilege of that docking space."
If city commissioners approve a new ordinance at tonight's meeting, sponge boaters will be required to prove that they make at least $20,000 in sales a year from gathering the natural resource.
The sponge boats will not be allowed to be docked for four consecutive months, unless there is a some unforeseen problem such as an hurricane.
In addition, sponge boats will be charged a yearly $165 fee. The fee is to cover the city's expense for water and electricity.
"If you make less than that, that means you are not making a living out of a sponge boat," said Taso Karistinos, 57, who owns the sponge boat dubbed Anastasi (which means resurrection). "If the city chases boats away, the city will lose. But I think the proposal is pretty fair. You chase out the ones that never move out of there."
The city has 16 sponge boat docking spaces with 14 active sponge boats. The city contacted boat owners last week about a workable limit.
Several thought that $10,000 in sales would be a better figure. The city's staff is recommending $20,000.
Everyone knows the importance of sponge boats to the city. But the sponge boats are more of an attraction when they actually have sponges.
"The focus is now how do we keep attracting more people to the sponge docks and with the economic changes in the country, Disney World is quite expensive," said Mayor Beverley Billiris. "You can spend the day on the sponge dock. That's the message we still need to get out."
The City Commission also could increase the fees it charges at its 21-slip marina tonight. The daily rates will increase from 90 cents per foot of boat length to $1.50 per foot. A 26-foot boat that pays about $23 a day would now pay $39. That would be a 65 percent increase.
Monthly rates for residents, which are determined by the square footage of the slip, would go up an average of 15 percent. An 800-square-foot slip would go from $208 a month to $240. A 560-square-foot slip would go from $146 to $168.
Commercial and nonresident vessels would pay higher fees for monthly use: $300 for an 800-square-foot slip, up from $250; and $210 for a 560-square-foot slip, up from $175.
If both the sponge dock changes and marina fees are approved, they will become effective immediately.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org.