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State misspends water funds

To cover budget shortfalls, the state defied a 1989 court order and spent nearly $400,000 that was intended to environmentally improve Tampa Bay and the Alafia River.

Officials at the state Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) said Tuesday they forgot the money's use was restricted and didn't realize their error until months after the state spent the money.

The money spent by the state, which totaled $391,126, was interest accrued from a $1.5-million fund created by a legal settlement over a pollution incident on the Alafia River.

A Hillsborough circuit judge ordered Cargill Fertilizer Inc., then known as Gardinier Co., to pay a $1.5-million fine after the company spilled 28,000 gallons of phosphoric acid into the Alafia River.

State officials said 7.7-million young fish were killed by the acid.

Now DER is trying to recoup the money from the state comptroller's office, which took the money _ with DER's consent _ last June.

But DER's chief attorney acknowledged that in light of the state's continuing budget woes the effort probably will fail.

"Somebody's going to be hurt somewhere," said the attorney, Dan Thompson. "The question is whether it's going to be DER, the fund or someone else in state government."

Officials at the comptroller's office familiar with the situation could not be reached for comment.

DER's mistake has outraged Jan Platt, who chairs Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission (EPC). "The bottom line is Tampa Bay loses out on money that was agreed upon to go to the bay," Platt said.

The legal settlement stipulates that money can be spent out of the $1.5-million fund or the interest accrued only with the approval of both the state and the county. DER officials notified the county when they discovered their error last October.

"The county has to agree with the expenditure of the funds and yet it had no voice in the appropriation," Platt said. "DER just happens to be holding the money from the lawsuit."

State officials took the money when legislators directed the comptroller's office to conduct an "interest sweep" of all state trust funds. DER did not say the money's use was restricted.

"At the time we didn't know enough to protest it and they didn't know enough not to take it," DER budget administrator Steve Dana said.

Platt said she plans to take up the matter at the next meetings of the EPC and the Agency on Bay Management of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

But she said she doesn't know yet what the county will do beyond that.