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Pinellas County eyes environmental services for deep cuts

Pinellas County has found a sure way to cut the cost of taking care of the environment — dismantle the environmental management department.

County Administrator Bob LaSala has ordered officials to plan to break up the department that cares for environmental preserves and beaches, and monitors water and air quality.

If all the reductions are made, the education centers at Brooker Creek and Weedon Island preserves would be "mothballed," according to a budget proposal released this week. The same memo by environmental management director Will Davis says it is unclear "what portions, if any" of the preserves would remain open.

The department's remaining duties would be folded into parks, public works and inspection agencies — after a 30 percent budget cut.

The news rattled preserve supporters and environmentalists Wednesday. They plan to protest the proposed cuts at a 5:30 p.m. meeting today at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg. The meeting is designed to gather public input on the budget process.

"It would be a black mark on the county," said former St. Petersburg City Council member Bob Kersteen, chairman of Friends of Weedon Island, a 3,000-acre area of grasslands and waterways in north St. Petersburg.

LaSala said the changes are only proposals at this point and he hasn't begun reviewing individual department's proposed cuts.

"It's ultimately a policy decision by the board," he said.

LaSala said he doesn't want to have to cut services or dismantle departments, but he sees few options for making $60 million in targeted cuts for next year's budget.

He said collapsing the environmental management department into the other agencies that do similar work could save money by reducing management costs.

But those departments warn they can't handle reductions and maintain the same level of service.

Larry Goldman, director of building and development review services, wrote a memo to the budget office Friday underscoring that point.

"I cannot understate how close to the edge BDRS is currently functioning," he wrote.

The environmental cuts would amount to 25 of 85 jobs and a $2.3 million reduction in its general fund budget of $7.5 million. It would leave the preserves and environmental agency a shell of previous years — months after they were given the task of enforcing a summertime fertilizer ban.

At the preserve's educational centers, one person would manage both sites, instead of the current four. Only six of 17 environmental lands staff would stay. Six code enforcement officers would be scrapped, leaving seven officers and a supervisor — and 18-day waits instead of two for service, Davis advised.

Preserves could still be open for trail use and public access, said assistant county administrator Mark Woodard. The county also would still do maintenance to control invasive plants and animals at preserves.

The initial budget proposals suggest hundreds of jobs are at stake as the county struggles to reduce its general fund 15 percent.

LaSala has ordered departments to identify 30 percent reductions as some departments might not be forced to cut 15 percent — based on need or public outcry. Another factor could be adding fees or taxes, such as for parking, a move preserve advocates like Kersteen support.

"We're a tourist destination — why are we eliminating our eco-tourism?" asked former Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris, who recently asked the county to cut commissioners' individual aides to help spare the centers.

County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who is running for re-election this year against Billiris and three others, said she is "100 percent committed" to finding money to keep the centers open. She suggested partnering with nonprofits or other government agencies. Other commissioners have expressed similar intentions.

But she supported the concept of breaking up the environmental management department, though she's waiting to see the details.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

IF YOU GO

Pinellas County budget meeting

When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Where: Gibbs High School, 850 34th St. S, St. Petersburg.

What: People can question staff and county commissioners about the budget in 2011, and offer suggestions.

Pinellas County eyes environmental services for deep cuts 03/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 18, 2010 1:07am]

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