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Pinellas commissioners fund arts, affordable housing with $7.1 million BP oil spill settlement

The Pinellas County Commission is set Tuesday to divide $7.1 million it received in the BP oil spill settlement to spend on projects across the county. During a commission meeting in August, that list was pared down from 89 projects worth nearly $23 million back in August. Those projects were written on a white board during the meeting. [MARK PUENTE | Times]
Published Dec. 13, 2016

CLEARWATER — It's not often that the Pinellas County Commission gives out $7.1 million that doesn't come from the pockets of taxpayers. But that's exactly what the board did Tuesday.

The commission voted unanimously to spend $7.1 million from a settlement of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The awards are one-time payments for 30 projects spread across the county and won't saddle taxpayers with future costs.

County Commissioner Ken Welch said the county had to practically beg people to apply for the money.

"I think it's a strong list," he said.

The $7.1 million will go to programs in areas such as youth sports, affordable housing and the arts and pay for capital improvements such as parks and a charging station for electric buses. Commissioners and staff finalized the list of 30 projects, paring it down from an earlier list of 89 projects worth nearly $23 million.

The biggest expenditures saw $1 million go to affordable housing, $1 million to sewer and stormwater upgrades and $589,000 for the electric bus charging station, which will be located in St. Petersburg. Kenneth City got the smallest payment, $22,000 for a pond project.

The county's next step is to finalize the agreements for the funds. Two projects need more analyzing, but commissioners set aside the remaining $268,000 to be dedicated to those last two items.

The board had some concerns about the art expenditure request led by Creative Pinellas. Plans are being developed to create a sculpture that symbolizes the region and can travel across the county for special events. The county will receive updates as those plans take shape.

The county also created a website so residents can track how the BP settlement is spent.

"We want to be transparent," said Bill Berger, director of management and budget.

There was, however, a $118,000 hiccup in the $589,000 request to fund an electric bus charging station in St. Petersburg. The city has yet to respond to a request to contribute $118,000 to the project.

Phil Compton of the Sierra Club urged the board to stop playing games and asked that they not delay the project.

Commissioners Welch and Pat Gerard took offense to that comment.

"I don't appreciate the attitude," Gerard said in response.

Welch added that the county is doing the required due diligence over its $471,000 share of the project.

Other big-ticket awards included $500,000 to support the arts; $350,000 for an East Lake Library and school parking lot; $294,000 for a Palm Harbor recreation center; and $250,000 for Hammock Park in Dunedin.

One payment, $350,000, has already been given out to help establish the pilot ferry service connecting downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Tampa.

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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