Pinellas officials fear total loss of beach nourishment dollars

04/26/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Most of Pinellas County’s beaches are constantly washing away. This happens due to a current that picks up sand and moves it south. To keep the beaches – and the millions of visitors they draw – from disappearing, the county has to constantly replenish the sand. The county funds these projects with a lot of help from state and federal money. Today Pinellas County Commission Chair Susan Latvala said dollars available for beach nourishment are quickly drying up.

"In the past we just contributed a small amount because most of the money for beach nourishment came from the state and federal government. Both of those entities have been very good to, not just Florida and Pinellas County, but around the country making sure that beaches which are such a huge public asset are maintained. With the fiscal crisis in Washington as well as in our state, that money has been cut back and cut back and cut back. We are very fearful of losing all of it."

At a joint meeting between the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners and the County Tourist Development Council, Latvala said the county has a very real fear. That is, without money to fund these projects, the beaches – and the numerous homes, hotels, condo complexes, and restaurants that line them, could literally go away.

"Just drive down Gulf Boulevard and you can see it. We spend tens of millions of dollars nourishing these beaches to keep them wide and available for tourists and our residents."

The county’s share of beach nourishment funding comes primarily from the tourist development tax, also known as the bed tax. That five-cents-on-the-dollar sales tax, charged on short term rental units, has a fraction of its revenue slated for such projects. Today Chief Assistant County Attorney Dennis Long said the county may direct more dollars to such projects in lieu of state and federal money.

"Beach renourishment, maintenance, improvement, and erosion control, that's been a feature of the plan for several decades. Historically it's been used for beach renourishment and as matching dollars. The new plan ... what the new plan does is clarify and expand the available pennies for that use to the first 2 1/2 cents."

Several officials lamented the loss of federal earmarks aimed directly at Pinellas beach nourishment projects like the one currently happening at Sand Key. The 15 million dollar first phase of that project is reportedly already funded, but that’s not the case for phase two. The county has applied for 11 million dollars in federal grant money for the project, and the county appears cautiously optimistic that it will come through. Latvala said the state’s proposed funding is of more immediate concern.

"We're worried about the money that we would receive in 2012 from the federal government. That is not solidified. At the state level it's literally this year, the coming year's budget. The 2011-12 budget."

Latvala said a potential solution to the lack of beach nourishment funding could be for beachfront cities to pool resources with the county on such projects. She said Clearwater is an example of this.

"They've been doing their own little thing irregardless of what we're doing. We need to do that together. You can get more done by being partners and working together and planning together."

Part of the bed tax also goes toward paying off the debt for Tropicana Field. That provision sunsets in four years, but the there has been talk that the Tampa Bay Rays may leave the region if nobody ponies up funding for a new stadium. Their contract with the city for use of the facility will be up in 2027, though some speculate they’ll be gone well before then. Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel said the threat of the Rays leaving doesn’t factor in to talk of how to divvy up bed tax revenue at the moment.

"At this point we have a legal agreement with the Rays and it goes til 2027. Our financing at the stadium goes for several more years as well, to 2017. Due to the legal contracts I can't comment any further."

Bed tax revenue also funds extensive marketing measures to help attract more tourists to the county. A Florida Atlantic University Study concludes that every dollar spent on beach nourishment had an 800 percent return on the investment.

Previous WMNF news stories on Beach nourishment

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