Pinellas County Archives - Page 3 of 22 - SaintPetersBlog

Darden Rice: Express bus route to beaches worth a compromise

rice-darden3-300x336Everyone knows Pinellas County is home to incredible beaches, world-class entertainment, and unmatched quality of life.

Because of this, Pinellas has emerged one of the nation’s top vacation destinations. This tourism boom is driving new business to local shops, restaurants and museums, and providing crucial revenue to city and regional government.

But as more people discover everything Pinellas has to offer, traffic congestion — and the pollution that comes with it — will only continue to grow. That’s especially true for our coastal communities.

If we don’t improve and innovate how we move people around, Pinellas will see increased traffic, decreased air quality, and lowered expectations from the people who visit, live, and work here.

Fortunately, we are on the cusp of an exciting new opportunity: planning is under way for Pinellas County’s first bus rapid transit line, providing expedited, limited-stop service along First Avenue North and First Avenue South between downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches.

While bus rapid transit, or BRT, will benefit riders, residents and businesses all along this corridor, the advantages are especially great for the beach community at the service’s western end. Choosing the best beach location to anchor the BRT line from downtown St. Petersburg is vitally important. Turns out there is one choice beach location that ranks high above all others: St. Pete Beach.

This month, PSTA and the St. Pete Beach City Commission will vote on whether to determine if this beach terminus can be confirmed. After much study, St. Pete Beach scored the overall highest by far in all categories evaluated and rated for fit, speed, access, market, and competitiveness. St. Pete Beach is the location with the highest density that will serve the most needs for residents, workers, tourists, people without cars, and new riders. Unlike most lengthy transportation studies, the comparison of the three cities is easy to digest. The conclusions gel with common sense.

One of the wrinkles is that St. Pete Beach — and Treasure Island — are two of five cities, including Kenneth City, Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore, which are not ad valorem members of PSTA. That rankles some who think the beach cities, especially ones that would benefit from BRT services, should contribute like everyone else. That is not an unreasonable position and our elected officials are being fiscally responsible in raising this issue. However, let us not forget that PSTA’s operations and capital budget also are supported by state and federal grants. St. Pete Beach residents and hotels certainly contribute in that way as well. And more fare revenue is projected to be created from St. Pete Beach residents and tourists who will use the bus service than any other beach destination.

I urge my fellow elected officials and PSTA board members to approach St. Pete Beach with a greater sense of cooperation. There is a great regional and economic value to provide a top-class bus rapid transit service, the first of its kind in Pinellas. We need to base the terminus locations on strategic considerations that will engender success. That will far outweigh what we might sacrifice by trying to squeeze every penny from a beach community already struggling to pay for myriad infrastructure needs.

While we should pursue any opportunities to look for contributions from the hotel industry or tourism revenues, ultimately, the greater gains the public will realize with a successful BRT service are greater than a sole focus on St. Pete Beach’s ad valorem contributions to PSTA. The success of this, the first of what I hope becomes a countywide network of BRT projects, will set the tone for future much-needed BRT projects in the works, so it is important that we do this right.

Working together is the Pinellas way. It’s how we can build the first link in a future regional system of bus rapid transit that our visitors, workers and residents deserve. And it is how we can move forward toward a brand-new chapter for Pinellas County’s future.


Darden Rice is chair of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and vice chair of the St. Petersburg City Council.

Pinellas sewer task force turns to the technical experts

There were no new revelations or big ideas during the first meeting of the newly formed wastewater/stormwater task force Monday.

Instead, Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, who created the board, tossed the ball to the technical staff with directions to come back to the committee with an initial plan within 90 days. The steering committee is made up of elected officials and community leaders.

Justice called for the task force to be formed after the county, St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs, St. Pete Beach, Clearwater, Largo, and others dumped millions of gallons of raw and partially treated water into Boca Ciega Bay, Lake Seminole, Joe’s Creek, irrigation canals, and other places during heavy rainstorms this past summer.

The general goal, Justice said, is to work collaboratively to come up with short- and long-term solutions to the county’s stormwater and wastewater problems. The specific goals are to avoid and mitigate spills and increase the capacity and resiliency of the individual systems and the system as a whole.

“Working together as partners, we can do more,” Justice said.

The task force was to be made up of representatives from the cities that have sewer systems, owners of private sewer systems and technical experts from public works departments in those municipalities. Representatives from civic associations were also asked to serve on the group.

While many cities — including St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo,and Pinellas Park — sent elected representatives to serve on the steering committee and brought along technical assistance, many others snubbed the meeting.

The mayors of Safety Harbor, Dunedin, Oldsmar, Treasure Island, North Redington Beach, and Redington Shores were among the no-shows. No community leaders appeared onstage either.

Those elected officials who did show were asked to comment on the issue as they saw it.

Terry Hamilton-Wollin, the vice mayor of Indian Rocks Beach, said she agreed the matter is one that should be viewed countywide.

“If it affects one of us; it affects all of us,” she said.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said providing sewer service is one of the core jobs of a government. But, he reminded, it costs money to maintain systems.


Pinellas Commission approves foreclosure registry

Comm_Dave_EggersIn an effort to minimize the impact of foreclosed properties that may not be properly maintained, the Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance requiring the registration, inspection and maintenance of foreclosed homes.

“It’s long overdue. Some of the houses in our neighborhoods are horrible,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said. “I’m tired of these banks not taking care of these houses and ruining neighborhoods.”

The ordinance, which goes into effect Jan. 1, applies to properties in unincorporated Pinellas that have been foreclosed on or are entering foreclosure. It requires that they be registered with the county and periodically inspected by the registrant to ensure they are being maintained.

Properties without any formal foreclosure action are not subject to this ordinance.

The registry will include the name and address of the mortgagee, the registered agent or the property manager’s contact information. This will allow county staff to easily identify a point of contact responsible for maintenance issues on a foreclosed home.

The goal of the registry is to reduce the need for recurring code enforcement actions against foreclosed properties, avoid detracting from the character of existing neighborhoods, and, ultimately, return these properties to the market in viable condition.

Registration will also require an annual fee, which has not yet been determined.

Once the ordinance goes into effect, the mortgagee will have 30 days to register the property. Failure to register could result in a fine and code enforcement actions may be taken on properties that do not address maintenance issues.

Pinellas County, cities provide help for victims of Hurricane Matthew

Two dozen fire and emergency medical services personnel left Pinellas for the east coast Thursday to prepare for the aftermath response of Hurricane Matthew.

Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services and Fire Administration coordinated the departure of the Fire Engine Strike Team and Technical Rescue Unit from Clearwater to the final staging area in Lakeland.

The effort was made possible by the strong partnerships among the county and municipalities. The Fire Engine Strike Team is made up of firefighters from the Dunedin, East Lake, Palm Harbor, Seminole and Largo fire departments. The Technical Rescue Unit is comprised of firefighters/technical rescue technicians from the Pinellas Park, Largo and Clearwater fire departments.

Once the storm passes, the emergency response teams will conduct search and rescue, provide paramedic care, extinguish fires and assist communities as needed.

“These type of severe weather incidents like Hurricane Matthew are so large that it takes the partnership of multiple agencies to accomplish this type of mission and level of support,” EMS and fire administration division director Craig Hare said. “We are able to do this for our neighbors without changing our fire and emergency services ability to be prepared for potential storm impacts in Pinellas County.”

The emergency response teams will remain in direct communication with the county’s EMS and fire administration to coordinate efforts and identify needs.

The county is also providing other hurricane-related support:

— U.S. Coast Guard aircraft from Miami and Allegiant Air aircraft from Orlando Sanford International Airport will be parked at the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport to be kept safe during the storm.

— Pinellas County Animal Services staff members have agreed to take 16 dogs and 15 cats from Osceola County Animal Services. The animals will be accepted into the adoption program once transported.

— The Convention and Visitors Bureau is working with tourism partners in information sharing about hotel room availability through the Visit Florida’s Emergency Accommodations Module, which allows hotel partners from non-affected areas to submit hotel availability and rates for the use of those who are being displaced.

“Both in times of calm and of emergency response, Pinellas County supports its belief that with partners we can do more,” Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice said. “We are pleased to help and to work with our municipal partners in delivering assistance.”

St. Pete closes emergency operations center; Pinellas EOC remains open

St. Petersburg closed its emergency operations center, opened to handle issues related to Hurricane Matthew, at 9 a.m. Friday.

No significant damage was reported, St. Petersburg officials said, although one downed tree branch briefly blocked traffic on 4th Street South at 59th Avenue. Wind speeds stayed between 18 mph and 26 mph overnight, with gusts reaching 33 mph, they said. Seven people spent the night at the shelter at Northside Baptist Church, 6000 38th Ave. N.

St. Petersburg officials said the city forecast is calling for 1 inch of rain and breezy conditions. Strong rip currents expected for the next few days. There is possibly a higher-than-normal high tide expected for later today, although no street flooding is anticipated unless the city gets heavier rainfall than expected.

Pinellas County officials continue to closely monitor Hurricane Matthew for potential impacts to the area. The county’s emergency operations center and citizens’ information center both remain open, as do all county government offices. Residents can call the citizens’ information center at 727-464-4333 for general information.

The National Weather Service is forecasting sustained winds of 25 mph to 35 mph and occasional storm bands with 40 mph to 45 mph wind gusts, similar to summer thunderstorms, to impact Pinellas County until noon. There is a high risk of rip currents for all Pinellas beaches and tides 2 feet above normal from Tarpon Springs to Indian Rocks Beach. Clearwater Beach is expecting a northwest wind influence that is expected to cause wave run-up and beach erosion.

The price gouging law is also in effect. Effective only during a declared state of emergency, the price gouging law prohibits sharp increases in the price of essential commodities, such as food, water, hotels, ice, gasoline, lumber, and equipment needed as a direct result of an official declared emergency. Violators are subject to civil penalties of $1,000 per violation, up to a total of $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a single 24-hour period.

Residents who suspect price gouging can report it to Pinellas County Consumer Protection at 727-464-6200 and are also encouraged to report it to the Attorney General’s hotline at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM.

Pinellas County prepares to lend hurricane aid to east coast

As preparations continue ahead of a Category 4 hurricane forecast to move along or over the east coast of Florida tonight and tomorrow, Pinellas County is making its own plans to lend a hand.

“The current weather forecast puts Pinellas County in a more favorable position to be able to support other agencies and counties that are expected to see far greater impacts,” Pinellas County Commission Chairman Charlie Justice said in a press release. “Both in times of calm and of emergency response, Pinellas County supports its belief that with partners we can do more. We are pleased to help and to work with our municipal partners in delivering assistance.”

As of Thursday morning, Pinellas County departments were offering the following support services:

Airport: U.S. Coast Guard aircraft from Miami and Allegiant Air aircraft from Orlando Sanford International Airport will be ferrying into St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport. The aircraft will be parked on PIE’s airfield to be kept safe during the storm.

Animal Services: Staff is on stand-by to receive 16 dogs and 15 cats from Osceola County Animal Services. The animals will be accepted into the adoption program once transported.

Fire Administration/EMS: As a part of the state of emergency response plan, Pinellas County is sending a Fire Engine Strike Team and a Technical Rescue Unit to Lakeland. The Fire Engine Strike Team is made up of firefighters from the Dunedin, East Lake, Palm Harbor, Seminole, and Largo fire departments. The Technical Rescue Unit will be made up of firefighters/technical rescue technicians from the Pinellas Park, Largo, and Clearwater fire departments.

The team will be staging at 3 p.m. at the Countryside Mall in Clearwater and will convoy in route to Lakeland’s final staging area with departments from all across the state set to support affected areas. Full fire department resources are in Pinellas County and ready to respond locally as needed.

Convention and Visitors Bureau: The department is working with tourism partners in information sharing about hotel room availability through the Visit Florida’s Emergency Accommodations Module at www.v­isitf­lorid­­/en-u­s/eam­.html, which allows hotel partners from non-affected areas to submit hotel availability and rates for those who are being displaced to use.

Rick Scott orders DEP investigation in St. Petersburg sewage discharges

Gov. Rick Scott has ordered the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to investigate sewage discharges in St. Petersburg.

The Governor’s Office made the announcement Wednesday, just one day after Scott called on the state Department of Health to begin additional testing at the discharge site. While the city is responsible for testing in the immediate area, the Department of Health will monitor the water quality and do sampling at 14 beaches — including nine in Pinellas County and five in Hillsborough.

“Florida is known for our pristine environment, world-class beaches and award-winning state parks,” said Scott in a statement. “We must do all we can to protect our environment, and that is why I am directing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to investigate the sewage dump that occurred in St. Petersburg following Hurricane Hermine.”

Heavy rains from Hurricane Hermine overwhelmed the area’s sewer systems. That caused millions of gallons of sewage to flow into the streets and waterways. According to the Governor’s Office, St. Petersburg dumped more than 150 million of raw and partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay and Boca Ciega Bay.

The Department of Health has issued a health advisory for Simmons Park Beach in Hillsborough County, across the bay from St. Petersburg.

Lawmakers learn Pinellas is responsible for half of Florida’s wastewater overflow this year

Lack of capacity, deteriorating sewer lines, broken equipment, and an immense amount of rain are to blame for overwhelmed sewer systems that have dumped more than 248 million gallons of untreated and partially treated wastewater into Tampa Bay and other Pinellas waterways so far this year.

Kathleen Peters
Kathleen Peters

Those explanations, provided to the county’s legislative delegation during a fact-finding session Tuesday, did not sit well with at least one delegation member.

“I get frustrated when I hear excuses and I hear climate change,” state Rep. Kathleen Peters said.

Some cities, she said, had neglected their duty to keep up with infrastructure improvements. As an example, Peters referred to the Penny for Pinellas. That tax, she said, was to improve infrastructure, yet very few projects had to do with improving cities’ sewer systems. In a county that worries about tropical weather and potential hurricanes, making sure wastewater and storm water systems were ready for such rain events should have been an easy call. Instead, the money went elsewhere.

“I don’t want to hear excuses anymore,” Peters said, adding that she wasn’t making her statements “to attack anyone.”

Peters made her statements toward the end of a special delegation meeting called for members to hear why the county, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Largo had overflows during the Hurricane Hermine. The meeting is the first of at least two. The delegation plans to meet again in 60 days to hear from the public and to get a progress report and more details from the county and the cities.

The sheer magnitude of the various overflows came into sharp focus when Mary Yeargen, the southwest district director for the state Department of Environmental Protection, laid out the numbers.

In 2014, the entire state of Florida saw 137 million gallons of overflow; in 2015, the state amount was 151 gallons; so far this year, the statewide overflow is about 262 million gallons. So far this year, Pinellas County has had overflows totaling more than 248 million gallons.

More than half the wastewater discharge for the entire state of Florida so far this year, came from Pinellas County, she said.

“We don’t want to see this happen again,” Yeargen said.

Jack LatvalaOfficials from the county and all three cities said they have projects in place to improve and expand their wastewater systems. But it’s not a quick fix. Many of the improvements will take years to get into place.

And, they said, fixing the publicly owned pipes is just part of the problem. A lot of the problem comes from so-called lateral pipes — the ones that run from peoples’ homes and businesses to the street where they meet the government-owned pipes.

Many of those lateral pipes have deteriorated and allow rainwater to flow into the sewer system, which helps cause the system to become overwhelmed.

Irvin Kety, Largo’s environmental services director, estimated inflow from those privately owned lateral pipes was responsible for up to half of the rainwater incursion that causes many of the problems. While Largo is improving its system, unless the privately owned pipes are fixed, “we’re still going to have overflow,” Kety said.

“We’ve got to get a handle on those private systems,” Kety said.

Rick-Kriseman   George CretekosThe problem is, the cities can’t go on private property and fix privately owned pipes. Homeowners will have to foot those bills. Kety said it’s hard to estimate what that might cost. It depends on the length of the pipe, whether it has to replaced, and whether it’s under a concrete drive. But, he said, a ballpark figure could put the cost at $2,000 to $3,000.

State Sen. Jack Latvala suggested cities might pass an ordinance requiring homeowners to get the lateral lines evaluated before they sell their homes.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he had given a sample ordinance to the city attorney for consideration. That could come before the St. Petersburg City Council.

Both he and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos suggested the delegation could help pass a statute or set up a rebate or loan program to help homeowners pay for the repairs.

Five takeaways from the Charlie Crist-David Jolly CD 13 debate

TAKE 1: Who won? I would call it a draw. Both candidates got in zingers at the other and both successfully reinforced the message they are trying to sell to voters.

In Jolly’s case, he wants to remind voters he has been a maverick in his two-plus years in the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s especially necessary for this race in a newly redrawn district that would seem to favor Democrats.

Jolly made sure to stray from the Republican Party line when asked if he would support the GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

“Donald Trump does not have my support today,” Jolly said. “I won’t be voting for Secretary (Hillary) Clinton, but I’m not there with Mr. Trump.”

He also showed his independent chops by saying, “I have tried to shatter the mold of modern politics.”

Crist, on the other hand, was reliably (and cautiously) Democratic in his responses, especially answering “absolutely” when asked if Gov. Rick Scott should push for expanded Medicaid protection in Florida.

Crist was his usual affable self, but Jolly managed to make him play defense a little while avoiding the trap of becoming shrill in the one-hour debate at St. Petersburg College on WTSP–Channel 10. That wasn’t easy to do. Breaking even in this tussle might be considered a win for Jolly in a tight race, which has national implications. But Crist didn’t do anything I saw that would damage his chances.

TAKE 2: The testiest exchange of the night came when Jolly tried to bring up the image of Crist once embraced as “Chain Gang Charlie” in 1996 when, as a member of the state Senate, he embraced Alabama’s practice of shackling prisoners in what was known as a chain gang.

Crist saw it as being tough on crime. Others saw it as hearkening back to the days of slavery, and Jolly went there in this debate.

“When you were in the Florida Senate, you coined yourself as Chain Gang Charlie. You stood on the side of the road over three African-American prisoners in chains on their knees on the side of the road,” he said.

Crist counter-punched hard.

“For you to suggest that it had anything to do with race is appalling, and it’s beneath you, and I’m embarrassed for you that you would say that about your fellow Floridian,” he said.

“The only concern that I had was for the citizens of Florida who were subjected to a violent crime every three minutes and 45 seconds. We were No. 1 in violent crime in America at that time. Some of the measures we took, including the STOP Act requiring 85 percent of sentences (be) served, has made Florida a safer place ever since. And of that, I am very proud.”

Jolly: “You cannot be the candidate today who embraces civil justice reform and did not have a second thought with TV cameras and news photographers taking photos that will live forever, that most viewers have not seen until tonight, that had you standing over African-American prisoners.”

Crist: “In all fairness, as the governor of the state of Florida, I was asked right before the election in ’06, ‘Charlie, if you’re elected, would you support automatic restoration of rights for former felons who are non-violent?’ David, just so you know how I feel, I am compassionate for people who are subjected to crime and I am compassionate to people who deserve to have a second chance. I don’t think the two are inconsistent whatsoever.”

Winner: Jolly. Bringing up Crist’s “Chain Gang” past is fair game, and it would have been nice to hear Crist state flatly that his views have evolved with the changing times. Either way, though, Crist opens himself up to the common charge against him of being a flip-flopper depending on who is listening.

TAKE 3: On the highly partisan question of whether illegal immigrants should have a pathway to citizenship or face, as Trump advocates, deportation with the possibility of returning to the United States through the legal immigration process, there was this exchange:

Crist: “I believe they should get a pathway to citizenship. I think it would be inhumane to take children away from parents and send them to different places. It’s unreasonable to deport 11 million people in the first place.”

Jolly: “I don’t support a pathway to citizenship for people who came here illegally. I do support a pathway to legal status and residency.”

Winner: Crist. The idea of deporting millions of people, as Trump champions, is ridiculous and unworkable. So what is left, especially for those who have been here for years and raised families while paying taxes and so on? Crist made the stronger point.

TAKE 4: On the ongoing problem of a massive sewage spill in St. Petersburg in the aftermath of Hurricane Hermine.

Crist: “What I don’t understand why our member of Congress, our representative of Pinellas County, which is at the epicenter of this problem, is not advocating day, after day, after day, for federal emergency help to get this cleaned up. Our country has done this for Flint (Michigan). Why can’t we do it for Pinellas County?”

Jolly responded: “May I? It is because the mayor who has endorsed you (Rick Kriseman) and oversaw this catastrophe has not asked for it. That’s why.”

Crist: “If you have to be asked when the people of your district are suffering, something is wrong.”

Winner: Crist.

TAKE 5: Line of the night. That goes to Jolly, who got in a great zinger against Crist with this quip: “Charlie, just because you’ve been a member of both parties doesn’t make you bipartisan.”

Winner: Jolly.

FINAL NUGGETS: The question that should never be asked goes to co-moderator Mark Rivera of WTSP–Channel 10, who probed deeply to both candidates, “What are your two favorite restaurants in the district?”

They live here. We get it. They don’t have to prove it.

On medical marijuana, Crist is all for it, as well you would figure since he is great friends with attorney John Morgan, who is a major advocate for marijuana as medicine. Jolly countered, “Only if the FDA approves it. We don’t approve medicines on the ballot. I don’t want my niece taking cold medicine or marijuana because voters approved it on the ballot.” And finally, the laugh of the night came when Crist said of Hillary Clinton, “I believe she is honest.” There was spontaneous laughter from the audience.

Janet Long suggests bringing all the sewer systems in Pinellas under one umbrella

Janet LongIn recent months, St. Petersburg has become the poster child for a crumbling sewer infrastructure that’s dumped millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated wastewater into Tampa Bay.

But the problem of failing infrastructure is much bigger than St. Pete. It’s countywide. The county, Largo, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs — just to name four — also have had problems with sewer systems unable to handle recent heavy rains.

It’s an urgent problem, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said Monday. It’s one complicated by a fragmented system that’s undergone decades of neglect. It’s time, Long said, to consider a countywide sewer system, somewhat like the solid waste management system.

The county runs the one landfill in Pinellas and oversees the one waste-to-energy facility in Pinellas. On the other hand, Pinellas County has 17 sewer systems — one belonging to the county, 13 belonging to municipalities, and three belonging to private landowners, according to county records.

The cost to upgrade those, in particular for the systems run by smaller cities like Treasure Island, South Pasadena, Gulfport, Redington Shores, and North Redington Beach, could be prohibitive.

“These are big infrastructure projects that one little city can’t handle on its own,” Long said.

Even the bigger cities will have problems affording improvements.

A better system, she said, would bring all the systems under one umbrella. Then, a study could be done to see how best to develop a state-of-the-art system for the entire county. After that, a decision could be made on ways to free up the necessary resources to pay to have the system put in place.

“I’m hoping that this task force will help us get there,” Long said. She was referring to a county task force Pinellas commissioners agreed to set up to find long-range solutions to the flooding and sewer infrastructure problems.

The failing infrastructure is a problem caused by decades of neglect, she said, in part because there’s never been an outcry to improve the wastewater system.

“There’s never been a brouhaha over the sewer system until now,” Long said. But now that people are paying attention, it’s time to find a long-term solution.

“We can’t wait 20 years,” she said.

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