TALLAHASSEE — The $2.5 million that a panel of lawmakers granted last month to the West Klosterman Preservation Group was supposed to save the 14 acres of untouched forest in Pinellas County from development.
But the grant was killed along with financial pledges for scores of other projects across the state after Gov. Ron DeSantis failed to take a necessary step to distribute the money.
The awards were part of a provision for “local support grants” tucked into the state budget that the governor had signed in June.
The panel of lawmakers awarded 238 projects last month across Florida worth $175 million, including more than 30 in Tampa Bay. The two-year battle to save the West Klosterman land appeared won.
But with no announcement, DeSantis failed to distribute the money to state agencies by a Sept. 30 deadline dictated by state law, meaning the $175 million of local projects across the state are now unfunded.
“The preserve is environmental resiliency,” said Kay Carter, treasurer of the West Klosterman group. “I feel it is shortsighted to continue to leave projects like this unfunded and unprotected.”
With the state flush with billions of dollars in reserves, the move is a not-so-subtle dig at Republican lawmakers and the latest assertion of power from Florida’s boundary-pushing governor.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Although legislators enacted DeSantis’ hard-right agenda this year, the governor vetoed more than $3.1 billion from the budget that included top priorities for Republican leaders.
The provision for local support grants was supposed to be a way for legislators to still fund some projects in light of the vetoes. Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, sponsored the local grant request for the West Klosterman land after an appropriation for the group was part of DeSantis’ veto list earlier in the year.
However, after the Joint Legislative Budget Commission named the grant recipients last month, DeSantis was still required to spell it out in a memo for state agencies to distribute the funds.
The state budget — which DeSantis signed into law — said, “the Executive Office of the Governor shall submit (the memo) … no later than September 30, 2022.”
Because the deadline came and went without the governor taking action, the money now goes back into the state coffers.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who championed the idea behind the support grants, didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
The 33 now-unfunded projects in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties included environmental, public safety and infrastructure projects that local leaders saw as critical priorities.
The city of Clearwater lost $500,000 that would have helped build wave attenuation walls on the downtown waterfront, which Mayor Frank Hibbard said is an infrastructure need for natural disasters like Hurricane Ian.
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“I’m very disappointed that the item was originally vetoed and now lost in this process,” Hibbard said. “We’re trying to harden the marina for events like we just experienced in Florida.”
The list of lost projects also includes $3 million for the creation of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office High Liability Training Center to help hone pursuit skills for law enforcement officers.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri declined to comment.
The University of South Florida St. Petersburg took the biggest loss: $15 million for a facility to house the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research & Innovation.
Zephyrhills was in line for $2.75 million for a new indoor athletic center at the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis and Wellness Center, which will now be put on hold, said City Manager Billy Poe.
Latvala, who sponsored grant requests for nine local projects totaling $6.4 million, declined to comment about the loss of funds.
The governor’s decision not to assign the money is just the latest expansive use of DeSantis’ power.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have questioned his use of state money to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last month.
Although the state budget said the program had to be used to send migrants “from this state” to other states, DeSantis said he couldn’t find migrants in Florida. He has spent more than $1.5 million to send migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.
One state lawmaker is suing him over the discrepancy. Neither DeSantis nor his spokespeople have provided any details about how the program complies with the law.
When the Legislature this year imposed penalties on school districts that enacted mask mandates in fall 2021, against the rules and guidelines set forth by his administration, DeSantis told the Department of Education to ignore the law.
And in August, DeSantis removed Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren for signing on to memos stating he wouldn’t enforce laws restricting abortion or transgender health care.
The move was considered an extraordinary reach of the governor’s powers. Warren has sued in federal court, alleging his free speech was violated, and the case is set to go to trial in federal court later this year.
Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt and the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.