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Address fix gets a test on U.S. 19

Five sand dollar-shaped signs to help motorists identify street numbers may mean no more squinting for addresses as U.S. 19 traffic barrels on by.

A task force looking at ways to improve one of the most dangerous roads in Pinellas County came up with the possible prototypes for similar signs along the north-south corridor.

The signs are 3 feet in diameter, with white numbers on a blue field. The poles are 8 feet high and posted on the east side of U.S. 19 at half-mile and quarter-mile intervals between Park Boulevard and 118th Avenue at an estimated cost of $1,500.

The task force also recommended address ranges on existing street signs, uniform address signs, the publication of a U.S. 19 address range map in Yellow Page telephone books, and a public brochure.

Report finds problems at school for troubled youths

LECANTO _ The Brown Schools, a private residential facility that treats adolescents who suffer from severe emotional problems, received its first state report card, and the marks were not good.

Regulators chastised Brown for maintaining inadequate staffing levels, following slipshod admission practices and inappropriately using seclusion as a behavior management tool for unruly residents.

Brown has responded with vigor, dramatically improving its staff-to-resident ratio and quickly flying company experts to Florida for emergency response work.

When it first arrived, the facility received a warm welcome from the Economic Development Council, which touted the company as a business engine.

But the school encountered immediate resistance from Black Diamond and other nearby upscale communities, whose residents feared Brown clients would escape and cause trouble.

Path to new St. Pete Beach city hall turns into maze

ST. PETE BEACH _ A year ago, St. Pete Beach reached a deal with developer Paul Skipper to design and build a new city hall on land Skipper donated to the city.

But the deal has bogged down as city officials have seen costs escalate, and now a cloud of threatened lawsuits and possible criminal investigations has settled over it.

A City Commission-appointed advisory committee recently submitted a letter that criticized Skipper for repeatedly missing deadlines and suggested ending the agreement.

At the request of several residents, the State Attorney's Office is investigating the relationship between the city and Skipper. In turn, the city's Police Department has asked the state attorney to conduct a separate investigation into the advisory committee's actions and possible Sunshine Law violations in writing the letter that criticized the developer.

In turn, Skipper has threatened to sue each of the six members who signed the letter and says he is close to backing out of his deal because of all the trouble.

Hernando ballots get

a going-over, yet again

BROOKSVILLE _ In a presidential vote count that refuses to end, Hernando County elections officials spent Thursday with the Miami Herald and the Republican Party of Florida, who each paid $130 per hour to have representatives pore over the ballots set aside as possible undervotes from the Nov. 7 race, already decided for George W. Bush.

Only Elections Office employees were allowed to touch the ballots, which used an optional scan, not the infamous punch card system.

Some clearly were blank, but others were less obvious. One, for instance, had a circle drawn around the oval for Gore, but the oval was not filled in properly. A similar one was cast for Bush. A large number had ovals filled for more than one candidate, while some had only one oval darkened, yet smudges, pencil erasures or white-out marks in other ovals.

The reviews might not be complete yet. Several other newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, New York Times and Chicago Tribune, have made similar requests to see the ballots.

Deputy's crime column

outrages Gypsies

DUNEDIN _ Emblazoned across the top of the newspaper column in bold capital letters is this warning: "GYPSY ACTIVITY _ BE SAFE, BE SMART."

Pinellas County sheriff's officials say the deputy who wrote the column for the Dunedin Highlander community newspaper was just trying to alert residents to scams pulled by traveling con artists.

But those of Gypsy descent call it racism and say the column, written by Deputy Kris Gilmore, is the equivalent of racial profiling.

"We are a non-white, ethnic minority protected by . . . the 1968 Civil Rights Act, and this is clearly profiling," said Ian Hancock, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas-Austin and a representative to the United Nations on behalf of Gypsies.

The Sheriff's Office conceded that the column could have been more sensitive.

"Historically, maybe not correctly, in the law enforcement context . . . some of these individuals engage in criminal activity," sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said. "Perhaps there should be a more general approach to it _ calling them just itinerant con artists rather than Gypsies."

Coming up this week

+ Beach going will get easier or more expensive depending on where you plant your umbrella. This week, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority begins a trolley service that connects riders to the beaches and downtown St. Petersburg. The price is $1 each time you board a bus or $2.50 for an all-day pass.

+ For those who drive their own cars to the beach, new parking fees for Clearwater Beach go in effect Monday to pay for a new public parking garage. The hourly rates at beach meters will be increased by a quarter to $1 and $1.25 during March and April and on weekends.

+ Epiphany, one of the holiest days in the Greek Orthodox faith, will once again be the main attraction Saturday. The Tarpon Springs celebration, with about 10,000 spectators, remains the largest Epiphany celebration in the nation. Church services at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral begin at 10 a.m., then a procession makes its way to Spring Bayou where the famous dive for the cross takes place. A festival at Craig Park follows.

+ Newly elected officials start taking office this week. Among two especially troubled offices: Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober takes over as top prosecutor Tuesday for the office once run by Harry Lee Coe, who killed himself at the beginning of an investigation that would ultimately reveal his gambling habit. And Pasco Sheriff Bob White takes office after firing nearly a dozen long-serving captains and majors from the department last week.

_ Compiled by Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne