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State agreements on Pinellas preserves require upkeep

Pinellas officials recently warned that budget shortfalls could force them to shutter the county's signature environmental preserves and education centers.

But they might not have read the fine print.

Their dire warning failed to take into account agreements and leases with state agencies that require Pinellas to run and maintain the preserves.

The deals require trails, environmental education programs and an education center at Brooker Creek Preserve. Another agreement requires the county to adequately fund operations at Weedon Island.

If the county balks, the land would revert to state control.

"I don't think they recognized the depth that they were committed. And they were quickly apprised of it," said Bob Kersteen, president of Friends of Weedon Island, among those who pointed out the deals.

County attorneys are reviewing the agreements to see what options, if any, the county may have. Chief Assistant County Attorney Dennis Long acknowledged Tuesday that the contracts put at least some requirements on the county — unless the county can persuade the state to approve new terms.

Top Pinellas officials suggested the "mothball" approach to some preserves and education centers in March as they considered how to cut $60 million from the 2011 budget. County Administrator Bob LaSala has pressed to eliminate the environmental management department and fold most of its duties into other agencies. This would save roughly $900,000.

Environmental management director Will Davis said his task was to come up with budget cuts, not to focus on the contract requirements.

But Kersteen and other preserves supporters rallied against any mothballing since learning of the proposal.

The pressure now has county officials eyeing new admission or parking fees as a way to generate revenue. One option under consideration is charging $2 to $5 to park or enter regional parks and major locations such as the preserves and Fort De Soto Park. LaSala said all options are being considered, but refused to spell them out until a "comprehensive" plan exists.

"These lands are not going to be mothballed. Maybe that was an unfortunate choice of terms by Bob," said Commissioner Susan Latvala, who is seeking outside groups to help finance the preserves. "We're not going to violate (the contracts). No elected official in their right mind would put a lock on those things."

About 90 supporters of the preserves attended a meeting with Commissioner Karen Seel Tuesday night at Weedon Island. Some said the county hasn't done enough creative work to solve the funding problems at the preserves. They urged her to keep preserves running with fees and more outside groups' involvement, such as schools.

Recalling taking students to Weedon Island, teacher John Stewart said, "This was the first time any of them had seen anything like this. They grew up in post-Disney Florida."

The preserve deals were struck in the 1990s as residents sought better care and access to the land than the state provided. All told, millions from state funding, utility fees, the county's general fund and the Penny for Pinellas sales tax went into nearly 12,000 acres of preserves.

The agreements also allowed the county to add more than 200 acres, with financial help from the state. To get that money, conditions in 1995 included optimizing the habitat and trails, building the education center and running programs about natural resources there.

In Weedon's case, a 50-year lease from 1995 requires similar projects and programs to be paid for by the county. If there's not enough money in the budget, the state can terminate the lease at the end of the budget year, Sept. 30.

County lawyers are poring through those deals, examining what cuts, such as fewer open days, would be allowed, Long said. The deals also allow for amendments that could reduce requirements on Pinellas. He expects the review to last as late as July, when the budget comes out.

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

State agreements on Pinellas preserves require upkeep 04/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 10:35pm]
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