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COST OF TREES IS NO JOKE (MAYBE)

After Pinellas Park drops crape myrtles from a project, an official offers a plan.

Council member Rick Butler suggested a novel way to save taxpayers a couple of thousand dollars on a landscaping project - swipe four crape myrtles rather than buy them.

Butler's joke came during a discussion at Thursday's council meeting about a proposal to spend $164,145 to landscape 24 medians on Park Boulevard. Among the vegetation were four 8-foot tall crape myrtle trees with white flowers. Butler made a motion, approved by a 4-1 vote, to eliminate the trees from the plan. Council member Sandy Bradbury was the lone vote to save the crape myrtles. The savings: $2,120.

"We can't (spend) that because we have to be good stewards of tax dollars," Butler said. "It's a shame, but maybe down the road we could get someone to donate (to) us or I could go steal four crape myrtles out of someone's yard, stick them in the median ... and hope the media doesn't find out."

A moment later, Butler said, "Borrow. I shouldn't have said (steal) according to the attorney. It would be a temporary borrowing situation that could be reimbursed at some future time."

The project, as passed, will cost $162,025. That includes $112,905 for 57,900 square feet of peanut grass; $28,000 for removal and dumping of vegetation and dirt from the medians; and $16,320 for 4,800 Emerald Goddess liriope plants. The project will improve the medians from 41st to 66th streets.

Butler said his comments about the crape myrtles, which were greeted by laughter, were prompted by a "butt whipping" the council received after the St. Petersburg Times reported in June 2008 that Pinellas Park had bought 14 Medjool date palm trees from an Arizona company at a cost to the taxpayer of $89,040 - ($6,360 per tree) to spiff up medians along Park Boulevard.

"Elected officials get pretty sensitive when we get butt whippings over what we spend for palm trees that are in every other community in the county," Butler said. "The impression I got was those palm trees are way too good to be put in Pinellas Park. ... Those palm trees are in every other community. If you go to Clearwater or St. Pete, it's perfectly okay that they have those palm trees but not in our city. I think that's terrible."

The crape myrtles would not have been the first along Park. Crape myrtles, the city tree, line much of the boulevard.

"We're, because of the butt whipping we did take in the newspaper and the media... we're being very sensitive," Butler said. "It's sad it's getting to that point, but that's the only reason I made the motion."

Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler agreed that officials had learned their lesson from the Medjool palms.

"We took so much flack on those palms that we didn't even know what the cost was until we took the flack," Mischler said. "We're looking a little more closely at individual items."

Butler promised Pinellas Park residents that new crape myrtles would soon join the existing ones on Park.

"I promise we'll find four crape myrtles somewhere. I've seen some at the front of the St. Pete Times building in St. Pete. ... I could go down there with a shovel," Butler said. "We'll find them somewhere."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

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