City officials quietly stopped providing dog waste bags at all locations except for dog parks this month, a cost-saving measure that has pet lovers and environmentalists alike howling.
Parks director Cliff Footlick said the bags had become an amenity he could no longer afford to provide. The city spent $48,000 on 1.7-million bags last year. Eliminating the free bags "saves me from cutting an employee," said Footlick.
But some pet owners aren't happy with the decision. For 10 years, residents used the free bags to keep local parks clean and abide by a city ordinance that requires owners to pick up after their dogs or face an $88 fine.
"People are going crazy over this," said Lucy Siegler, a downtown resident and dog owner who has signed a petition demanding that the city bring back the bags. "We feel like we moved here because the service was there, and we want it back."
Footlick said he posted signs at city parks last month advising pet owners the bags would no longer be available after Oct. 1, the start of the city's new fiscal year.
But some City Council members said they were not aware that the city was eliminating the service.
"We were not told this was one of the budget cuts," said council member Herb Polson. "I honestly thought our parks department provided those bags at no extra cost."
Council chairman Jamie Bennett said he only learned the bags had been eliminated after a resident called him to complain.
"It really is a shame that we had to make that kind of budgetary decision," he said. "People should carry a bag, but you know what? A lot of times they forget and (providing bags) is just one of those things that really does help the parks, it helps the city."
The city's parks budget grew from $14.3-million to $15.5-million this year. Footlick said even after he eliminated five positions through attrition, the rising cost of gas and employee salaries meant he had to cut $250,000 from his budget.
The dog waste bags were cut because residents can carry their own, said Footlick, who also worried that the bags were being misused.
"We would refill the dispenser, and it would be empty by the end of the day. There are just not that many dogs," he said.
Footlick said he doesn't know why someone would steal the bags.
"We caught a lady once going around Crescent Lake just removing all the bags," he said. "We have no idea why she did that."
More than 12 residents have called City Hall to complain about the bags in recent weeks, and city officials said they expect more complaints.
Environmental activist Beth Connor said she is worried more people will neglect to pick up after their pets, especially along St. Petersburg's many waterfront parks.
"This is something that I really think they made the wrong decision on. It's penny-wise, but pound-foolish," she said. "The monetary cost of the bags far outweighs the environment costs down the road, and the bottom line is we need to keep as much poop out of the bay as possible."
Brandy Downing, an environmental specialist with the county's Healthy Beaches program, said animal waste isn't a growing threat, but pet owners should be mindful that dog excrement can be harmful.
"As a community, we have to be environmentally aware and pick up after our pets," she said, "so that it does not get into our waterways or make anyone sick."
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@firstname.lastname@example.org.