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Greco pushes for cleaner city

Fifteen years ago, along with the police, fire and water Departments, Tampa City Hall had something known as the "Aesthetics Division."

With 116 employees and support from federal job-training funds, the division, as the name suggests, worked to keep Tampa's streets, alleys, sidewalks and lots tidy.

Today the job-training funds, the employees and the mission are long gone, but Mayor Dick Greco wants to start something similar again.

In his budget for next year, Greco proposes spending $2.1-million to hire 37 full-time employees and 16 teenagers who would work part-time.

Organized into cleanup crews, the new employees would go into neighborhoods to cut grass from the sides of streets and alleys, remove graffiti and pull weeds.

"The main thrust of this work force is going to be rights of way and alleys," Parks Director Ross Ferlita said Tuesday. Occasionally, as part of the neighborhood cleanups, crews would clear off privately owned vacant lots as well.

Generally, Ferlita said, city officials envision doing that when most property owners in a neighborhood are taking steps to keep their property neat, but one or two lots remain overgrown or littered. Parks officials estimate the new crews could achieve a one-time cleanup of about 1,000 lots.

That's the part of the program with which City Council member Bob Buckhorn disagrees.

"I think there are certain core functions that government ought to do and do well, and there are other things that we ought not to do," he said. "Cleaning up private property and adding additional personnel . . . to me is not an appropriate use of a very limited number of dollars.

"Once you start cleaning up private property, you take away the incentive for people to clean up their own property," Buckhorn said.

Greco did not return a call about the program Tuesday, but Ferlita said the idea is not to go into neighborhoods and do work homeowners should be doing themselves. To the contrary, he said the city couldn't add enough new employees to do that.

"To do the program right, it would have taken, the original estimate was over 100 people," he said. Besides planning for the cleanups, he said city officials are looking into billing property owners for work done on their land.

Although the parks department is getting the additional personnel, Greco wants to bring in other departments to help with the work. Street-sweepers are being upgraded, and the solid waste department will increase the number of neighborhood cleanup days from about two dozen to 40 per year.

During the early 1980s, the city used to hold a "spring cleanup day" where homeowners could put old furniture, mattresses and other junk on the curb for free pickup. They would alert garbage truck drivers by placing a white flag next to their stuff.

"In January of the next year we were still picking up white flags," said Wayne Brookins, the city's solid waste director. "In a city of this size, it's almost virtually impossible. You never will finish."

The city discontinued its spring cleanup days, and replaced them six or seven years ago with a free neighborhood pickup program. But Brookins said the program has only reached areas with organized civic groups.

"We are expanding an existing program to include more neighborhoods that have been missed in the past," he said.

Brookins said the cleanups will continue to be free, but residents will not be able to dispose of items such as construction debris, transmissions, auto parts, large appliances or hazardous materials.