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Taxes from suburbs draw suitors

To the city of Tampa and the Hillsborough County Commission, the tony housing developments sprouting along the corners of the county are precious flowers waiting to be picked.

And to have those tax-producing flowers in their own baskets, the two governmental bodies may get into a bidding war over a choice piece of land.

Former Judge Guy W. Spicola's spread of 46.5 acres is just the jigsaw piece the city needs to leap over and annex the K-Bar Ranch, a 2,300-acre piece of real estate the city sees as its future. If the county buys Spicola's property, the K-Bar would likely never be in the city because of state law prohibiting the creation of islands of unincorporated county land surrounded by city land.

The complicated maneuvering is to preserve the new tax revenue that the fast-growing neighborhoods of northwest Hillsborough, also called New Tampa, are creating. And those governments would get more money to spend as a result.

The problem so far is that Spicola wants $1.6-million for the property, and the county has offered only $600,000.

"There is a bidding war going on," County Commissioner Jim Norman said. "And the taxpayers are getting killed."

Drama program saved in

the last act by local director

INVERNESS _ Talk about your happy endings.

The Citrus High School drama program, which was cut for budgetary reasons, was prepared to plead its case at school budget hearings last week, when in came a last-minute savior.

The solution comes in the form of a 20-year drama teacher who has volunteered to teach classes to the juniors and seniors. The volunteer is Judy Poplawski, executive director of the community theater Playhouse 19.

In addition to teaching four classes a day, she has refused to even take the supplement that is normally paid to the drama teacher. She has instead asked to have the money put into the drama program.

The cut in the drama program comes as educators are under pressure by the state to improve test scores in core academic areas.

"It was a tough decision, but it was a no-brainer," said Citrus High principal Gary Foltz. "You've got to have the basics, and the fun stuff comes later. If I'm going to be judged as an educational leader . . . I've got to be on even footing."

Hernando commission denies

new dock space for fishermen

BROOKSVILLE _ Homeowners unhappy with the sight of commercial fishing boats in Hernando Beach sunk their first battleship by stopping a proposed expansion of commercial docks.

Next up, the County Commission will consider a ban that would prevent fishermen with boats longer than 26 feet from docking behind residential property.

It has been a clash of cultures in Hernando, with working-class fishermen complaining that moneyed newcomers are trying to shut down an industry that has fished the local waters for generations.

But property owners say the commercial boats are unsightly and bring noise and pollution to their neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, the County Commission may consider grandfathering boats longer than 26 feet, but support for that plan has so far been shaky.

Hospital seeks affiliate

to help cut flow of red ink

TARPON SPRINGS _ Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital continues to bleed red ink, and there is no sign of it stopping, administrators said.

The hospital has continued to cut costs, but patient volumes have declined.

The good news, hospital administrator Joseph Kiefer said last week, is that despite the $1.8-million deficit, the hospital is on track in its search for an affiliate to keep the institution running long term.

The search for a partner includes Morton Plant Mease Healthcare and the alliance between University Community Hospital in Tampa and Adventist Health System of Winter Park.

YMCA yearning for better

facility in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG _ The St. Petersburg Family YMCA secured property in the Central Plaza area, the first step in a $6.5-million project to build a state-of-the-art facility.

YMCA officials in St. Petersburg have looked with longing at the big budgets and memberships of other YMCAs in the Tampa Bay area.

Renovation costs on its current location, a 1927 building in downtown St. Petersburg, would have been out of the question, administrators say.

So the plan now is to kick up fundraising for a new gymnasium, health and fitness center, gymnastics center and six-lane pool. YMCA officials hope to break ground in the winter of 2000, with completion a year later.

Clearwater ponders ways

to make pools safer

CLEARWATER _ A proposal to require all new swimming pools to have childproof barriers was shot down, but Clearwater city commissioners still want to talk about requiring some type of protection.

Commissioners decided Thursday that requiring homeowners to erect barriers around swimming pools was too strict. So they asked city staff to rewrite the ordinance so that residents could put either some type of fence around either the pool or their yard, but not both.

In Florida, drowning is the leading cause of death for children under 4 and is five times more common than the national average. More than half of those deaths occur in backyard swimming pools.

A bill in the Florida House in the past session would have required all new residential pools to have at least one safety feature, such as a pool fence or alarms at the back door of the house.

The Legislature did not pass the measure, but other states, such as California, and cities, such as Phoenix and Fort Worth, Texas, have adopted such requirements.

"Florida is the least regulated state," said Kevin Hyland, who runs a distributorship of rubber and nylon pool fences, called Baby Barrier, in Palm Harbor. "Kids are drowning right and left. Something needs to be done."

The commission will reconsider the ordinance at its next meeting Aug. 19.

Coming up this week

The controversial project to dredge 88 acres of Tampa Bay to enlarge Port Manatee goes before the governor and Cabinet on Thursday, where environmentalists are sure to oppose it. The dredging project _ the biggest to hit the bay in decades _ would displace 12.7 acres of sea grass beds. Sea grasses provide a habitat for small fish, shrimp and crabs as well as food for manatees. The port is promising to plant new sea grass beds, restore a blocked creek, limit speedboat traffic and turn a spoil island into a seabird sanctuary. Experts from the state Department of Environmental Protection have recommended against the project, but the department's leaders will recommend approval of the concept, pending more details. The National Marine Fisheries Service has recommended against the project, and the environmental group ManaSota-88 filed a legal challenge.

The Citrus County School Board will consider pre-employment drug testing for new school district employees at its meeting Tuesday. Bus drivers are already required by law to go through pre-employment and random testing. This policy would prevent any applicant who fails a drug test from getting a job in the district or applying for a job in the next year. But critics say the test would catch only people who have used drugs in the couple of days before the test and might not be worth the cost. The district would spend an estimated $5,300 on testing new employees and another $22,000 annually testing substitutes.

_ Compiled by Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne.

PLEASURE BOAT BUILDERS: Electricians Larry Link, left, and Jim Hall heat and bend a plastic conduit for Cool Runnings, a 74-foot catamaran being built in a vacant lot near the Norfleet Fish Camp in Aripeka. The boat is the most ambitious, most expensive project boat builder Richard Stauffer has ever attempted. The Jamaican cruise company that commissioned the catamaran calls it "the biggest party sailboat in the world." When complete, the boat will be worth about $750,000 and will carry a bar, a massive sound system and 125 dancing tourists to and from Jamaica.