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High-speed ferry between St. Petersburg and Tampa is a go

With a 5 to 1 vote, Pinellas County on Tuesday became the fourth governmental body to collaborate on the launching of a high-speed ferry between Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The vote cements a deal among St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough County to link the two counties by a high-speed ferry.

Comm_Dave_EggersThe lone holdout was Commissioner Dave Eggers who has opposed the proposal from the beginning. Among Eggers’ objections are a lack of market research on the viability of the project and the high risk of failure.

“I’m not in favor of this project for a number of reasons,” Eggers said. “I can’t support the use of public funds for a risky venture with no market research to back it up.”

Eggers was not the only skeptic. Largo resident Jeff Moakley said he believes officials are “frivolously” spending money for a “government subsidized boat ride on Tampa Bay.”

“It’s strictly a Petersburg and Tampa issues. It’s not a county issue,” Moakley said. “You’re just throwing away $350,000 to subsidize something two mayors want so badly they can’t see straight.”

If all goes well, the ferry will launch Nov. 1 for a six-month pilot project to test the viability of the idea. To get the project going, four governments – St. Petersburg, Tampa, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties – have each agreed to put up $350,000, or one quarter of the total $1.4 million cost of the pilot. Pinellas’ portion will come from BP settlement money.

The purpose of the pilot is to test the viability of a ferry service both for daily commuters and for tourists who wish to cross the bay. Plans are for HMS Ferries to provide a minimum of two trips between St. Petersburg and Tampa Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays and Sundays. There will be a minimum of three trips on Fridays. Officials believe that schedule will test both the commuter market and the tourist market.

kriseman2The ride would cost $10 for a one-way ticket although St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said officials are working on weekly and monthly passes at greatly reduces fees. The fees for children who ride the ferry might also be lower.

“The rate … is going to help determine the ridership,” Kriseman said. The difficulty, he said, is finding “that sweet spot” for a cost that encourages people to ride the ferry but also provides profit for HMS, the private company running the ferry.

“I think you’re going to see different rates,” Kriseman said.

ken-welch-photoCommissioner Ken Welch said the cooperation among the four governments was unprecedented and boded well for future projects, “except the Rays. We’re going to keep them in Pinellas County.”

Welch made the motion to support the ferry. Pat Gerard seconded his motion. John Morroni, who is on sick leave, did not vote.

Kriseman gave each a sea captain’s cap to celebrate the deal.

Former Pinellas commissioner Norm Roche loses Round 1 of lawsuit

Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Newton has denied a plea that Pinellas County turn over public records to former Commissioner Norm Roche.

Newton said in her order, filed Monday, that state law requires governments and other public agencies to make records available. However, she wrote, Roche failed to produce proof that such records exist.

Roche, she said, testified that “based on common sense and conventional wisdom, he believed that additional documents … existed.” The county, she said, “clearly refuted all of [Roche’s] claims about the existence of such documents.”

Roche said, “The ruling is perplexing given the hard evidence presented, along with corroborating testimony by me and several of the witnesses. However, it is not entirely unexpected. Going up against the county within the circuit comes with its own set of special challenges. We hope to get some answers to all of this when all is said and done.”

Roche is suing Pinellas claiming officials blackballed him from working for the county after he lost a re-election bid. Roche, a former county employee, was turned down for 26 jobs with Pinellas after he left office. He was hired for the 27th job he applied for – a customer service specialist paying about $15 an hour. But before he could report for work, he was told that he would not be hired. Roche called it being “unhired.”

Part of Roche’s lawsuit involved an allegation that county officials failed to provide him with public records concerning his employment status. That’s what Newton ruled on.

Roche’s cause of action alleging he was blackballed is still ongoing. He has asked for a jury trial.

USF researchers say they found dangerous bacteria after sewage spill

A September 2014 sewer line break in unincorporated Pinellas County caused untreated wastewater to flow into a St. Petersburg neighborhood and Boca Ciega Bay at a rate of 250 to 500 gallons a minute.

Now, researchers from the University of South Florida investigating the aftermath of the break have found dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the untreated wastewater that had gushed into both neighborhoods and Boca Ciega Bay.

Their findings, just published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology and announced in a news release, raise several significant public health concerns. 

First, a strain of bacteria found in the water tested resistant to vancomycin, an antibiotic considered to be a “last resort” treatment for serious infections that do not respond to other antibiotics. Second, the combination of aging sewer infrastructure and an increase in stormwater flooding with extreme rain events increases the likelihood of more spills occurring and continuing to spread these dangerous, drug-resistant bacteria in populated areas. Finally, the researchers found that the vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) bacteria found in the untreated waste water has a gene capable of transferring vancomycin resistance to other kinds of bacteria. This fuels the greater problem of increasing antibiotic resistance. 

The researchers sampled the water and soil for seven weeks following the spill from the broken sewer line which totaled about 500,000 gallons of released untreated sewage. Genes from the vancomycin-resistant bacteria were detected for nearly two weeks after the spill. 

“While we have known that raw sewage contains many disease-causing bacteria, this experience tells us that sewage and fecal pollution also carry vancomycin-resistant bacteria,” said Dr. Valerie Harwood, a professor in the USF Department of Integrative Biology and study co-author. “Most VRE are confined to hospitals, but detecting them in waters of the Tampa Bay community is quite concerning. People need to be aware of what may be entering the water after heavy rains, accidental spills, or after intentional sewage releases.” 

According to lead study author, USF Ph.D. student Suzanne Young, their finding is also a public health “wake-up call” to be more prudent with the use of antibiotics in both humans and animals. 

“The more antibiotics we use — in both humans and animals — the more the antibiotic resistant organisms and antibiotic resistance genes can enter the environment and contribute to the spread of antibiotic resistance, especially for those drugs considered the “last resort’ for many infections,” explained Young. “Also, we need to invest in more sustainable infrastructure for managing stormwater and wastewater to decrease the frequency of sewage spills.” 

The researchers also called for more monitoring of VRE and the presence of resistance genes outside of the hospital setting where they are more commonly found. 

According to the authors, the bacteria they discovered in the sewage spill waters — VRE — are on the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s list of serious threats. 

“The spread of pathogens with high levels of vancomycin resistance beyond hospitals and into the community is a public health threat,” concluded the researchers. “While further studies are needed to better define risks, knowing these pathogens are in Tampa Bay sewage is an important development.”

Baby declared dead ‘self-resuscitates,’ parents accuse Bayfront of negligence

In April 2012, 28-year-old Desiree Little went into labor at Bayfront Hospital.

Complications forced Little to receive an emergency C-section for the birth of her son, T.J. Drake, named after Terrence Drake, the 27 -year-old father.

The parents, both St. Petersburg residents, were not married, nor were they in a relationship.

After numerous resuscitation attempts, doctors allegedly declared baby T.J. dead, just 10 minutes old and weighed seven pounds three ounces.

Twelve minutes later, doctors heard a “gasp,” according to the chart by Dr. Escoto. T.J. had reportedly “self-resuscitated.”

After spending a short period in the NICU, the critically ill infant was transferred to the nearby All Children’s Hospital. Over the next week, T.J. suffered from seizures, which required Phenobarbital and a full body edema.

T.J.’s parents allege they were advised on multiple occasions to withdraw life support; they declined. The baby survived and after two weeks was discharged.

The parents claim staff at Bayfront made a series of errors, which left their son with severe brain damage.

A medical negligence suit filed in Pinellas County court says T.J. was born with “permanent neurological injuries” directly caused by the “negligence of the said Defendants (Bayfront and various staff) as will be set forth hereinafter.”

Injuries include “brain damage from birth hypoxia and/or asphyxia.”

“Defendants deviated from the prevailing standard of care for said healthcare providers in their care and treatment of Desiree Little and her minor son, and such negligence resulted in severe and permanent injury to the child,” the suit continues.

The negligence claims focus on numerous errors in care, such as inadequate charting of events, an alleged rupturing of Little’s membranes by the improper placing of a fetal scalp electrode and abandoning resuscitative efforts of the child after only 10 minutes.

Doctors Hayes and Escoto are also accused of negligence resulting in the child’s brain damage.

Due to the extreme carelessness, the suit suggests that Little and Drake will be forced to spend substantial sums of money on baby T.J.’s medical care and treatment, including surgeries, rehabilitative therapy and occupational therapy. They are seeking damages from both the hospital and staff.

As David Best, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, told “I’ve been involved in hundreds of these types of cases and this one is real unusual.”

Best said that “there’s no written standard of care” as to a specific time limit on resuscitating still born babies.  “It’s a bit subjective and dependent on a few things, but I’ve spoken to a doctor who’s examined the kid, and he thinks they should have tried for at least 20 minutes.

“[T.J. is] doing wonderfully well,” Best said, “considering he was dead, but it’s still a little early to determine how badly brain damaged he is.”

Best said he was in the middle of amending the complaint as filed “purely for legal purposes” as the initial filing was “rushed” to beat the statute of limitations.

Bayfront has not yet responded to the complaint, and could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Ending homelessness among veterans by the end of the year: Difficult but not impossible

The Obama administration’s goal to eliminate homelessness among military veterans by the end of the year could be a difficult mission as tens of thousands of vets remain on the streets, including perhaps 3,000 in Florida.

A point-in-time count in February around the Tampa Bay area counted nearly 400 veterans living on the streets of Pinellas County.

In Hillsborough County, 181 vets were without homes. That number represents a 42 percent drop from the previous year, but was more than the 170 counted in 2013, according to statistics provided by the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative.

“I’m happy to see that,” said Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, director of the initiative. “Of course, we always want more.”

While veteran homelessness across the nation varies widely state by state, locally, the administration’s goal is within reach, she said.

“I think we’ve finally got all the pieces together in our community,” she said. “I think (eliminating homelessness here) is realistic. When we talk about ending homelessness among veterans, that doesn’t mean there won’t be a single homeless veteran out there. It means that we have the resources to help anyone out there get into housing.

“And we’re on the verge of that here.”

The primary resources here include mostly landlords and owners of vacant apartments and houses stepping up to offer the space for homeless veterans.

“We need partners who have those units available,” Hayes-Triplett said. Rent would come from subsidies provided by the federal government through the initiative.

Some communities have more resources than others, she said, and some will hit the administration’s goal by the end of the year. Others will not.

“Some have already hit that mark,” she said, “but not many.”

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development, the agency that oversees and funds efforts to reduce homelessness in the United States, said the 2015 count, the most recent data available, found nearly 48,000 veterans living on the streets.

Of those, 3,926 were counted in Florida, which ranked second in the nation behind California, which tallied just over 11,000 homeless vets.

The Sunshine State is doing something right, though. Since 2009, homelessness among veterans fell by nearly half, HUD statistics say.

Earlier this month HUD and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs awarded nearly $38 million to help get veterans off the streets. The grants, awarded through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, mainly assisted in paying rents for thousands of qualifying veterans across the country.

“Supporting the brave men and women who served our nation is not only our honor but also our responsibility,” said HUD Secretary Julián Castro in a statement released June 2. “Joining the more than 111,000 formerly homeless veterans who have already found homes through this successful program, thousands more brave veterans will be able to start a new chapter in their lives.

“It’s a privilege to partner with communities dedicated to ensuring that no veteran has to call the streets their home.”

Joe Henderson: Unopposed candidates create ‘great void’ in local politics

Elections are supposed to be about choices, but after candidate qualifying ended in Florida last week, many of the elections are already decided.

Voters in 11 districts won’t get to choose their state senator because the incumbent faces no opposition — seven Republicans and four Democrats, if you’re keeping score. And in District 24, Pinellas County Republican incumbent Jeff Brandes faces only a write-in candidate.

The theme is the same in the state House, where 29 candidates face no opposition — 16 Republicans, 13 Democrats.

Twelve of 19 state attorney races are over before they start. Fourteen of 19 public defenders can hold victory parties. Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee is a winner. So are elections supervisor Craig Latimer, tax collector Doug Belden and County Commissioner Les Miller.

Three of the seven county commission races in Pinellas County didn’t make it to November, either. The Pinellas clerk of courts race ended on qualifying day.

What gives?

I don’t think there is one factor that explains it all.

In most, if not all, of those cases, opponents no doubt sized up the incumbent and the makeup of the district and decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to raise enough money to compete.

Districts for statewide races are drawn with sometimes eerie precision that it’s almost too easy to predict the winner before the campaign even begins. Court-ordered redistricting now in effect may change some of that, but probably not all of it. That has a major dampening effect on an underdog pondering a challenge.

Voter apathy needs to be near the top of the list, too.

While debating the difference between Hillary and Trump in a bar might get you punched in the nose, local and even statewide races don’t have the same impact. I think it’s a safe bet that many voters can’t name their state senator or representative, even though those elected officials have a much more direct impact than someone running for president.

It takes a special something to get the attention of voters these days. A scandal might do it, as former Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner learned in 2012. Allegations that he sent porn to a female staffer in his office turned into a political tsunami that put a spotlight on a race that otherwise would have been relatively obscure.

But that’s the system we have now.

The major political parties in this state have become adept at speaking to themselves and rallying those few who give a hoot, but there is a great void out there waiting to be addressed that could change the way things get done.

Republicans have been much better than Democrats at working the system and getting what they want. That won’t change until opponents figure out how to make people understand that the closer to home a race is, the more they need to pay attention.


Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He has covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons — Ben and Patrick.

Pinellas County stands with Orlando, schedules blood drives

Charlie JusticePinellas County officials sent condolences and love to the city of Orlando and all the families impacted by the worst mass murder in American history.

Florida, they said, is one community and an attack on one city is an attack on each of us.

“Pinellas joins with our friends throughout Florida in standing with the people of Orlando,” said Charlie Justice, chairman of the Pinellas County Commission. “We stand resolute on principles of equality, freedom, justice and love. We will not retreat. We will keep moving forward. Today, we can all join together in a blood donation in honor of those who cannot.”

In response to depleted blood supply in the Orlando area, Pinellas County is partnering with OneBlood to host two blood drives, the first from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the county courthouse, 315 Court St., Clearwater. The second is 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Pinellas County Utilities building, 14 S Fort Harrison Ave., Clearwater.

The general public is encouraged to join county employees in this effort.

Tropical Storm Colin claims hundreds of sea turtle nests on Gulf Coast

Besides the toll taken on the humans of Florida, Tropical Storm Colin claimed what may be hundreds of sea turtle nests buried beneath the sands along the state’s Gulf Coast, wildlife advocates say.

“There was damage,” said Joe Widlansky, sea turtle biologist with Sea Turtle Trackers, a group in Pinellas County that monitors the marine reptiles and their nesting habits in the region.

The nesting season just started last month, he said, and about 14 nests have been identified and marked with wooden sticks and ribbon, in Widlansky’s district along the South Pinellas shoreline. Half of those were lost, he said, and between 25 and 50 percent loss may hold true along the Gulf coast from Pasco to Charlotte County.

Nests around Clearwater, he said, appeared to have suffered losses of between 40 and 50 percent.

“Everybody on the west coast,” he said, “took a good hit.”

State wildlife officials also are beginning to assess the damage to the nests, saying high tides and storm surge flooded nests in the Gulf of Mexico from the Panhandle to Southwest Florida.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley toured St. George Island near Apalachicola Bay Wednesday, an area where sea turtle nests were said to have sustained the most damage.

“This is a top priority for the agency,” Wiley said in a statement released Wednesday morning. “We want Florida’s sea turtles to have another successful nesting season and we will continue to work with FWC’s marine turtle permit holders to help make that happen.”

At least 79 nests in Charlotte County were destroyed by the storm, representing one in every four, according to a story in Wednesday’s Naples Daily News. Turtle nest monitors there told the newspaper that another 58 nests were flooded, but it appears the nestlings there have survived the storm.

Though the numbers seem dire, sea turtles nest several times before the end of the summer, providing a natural way to propagate even if some nests are destroyed, said Widlansky.

“It’s unfortunate this happened,” he said. “It’s nature.”

But nature also protects the turtles, he said, by allowing them to lay eggs throughout the summer. So, if an early storm hits, like Tropical Storm Colin, there still is time for turtles to go on with their business of making baby turtles.

Nesting season officially begins May 1, but, the month of June typically is the busiest month for turtles laying eggs along the Gulf of Mexico beaches, he said

The eggs more recently produced, he said, have a better chance of surviving flooded nests. In some cases, eggs can survive being submerged five or six hours. Older eggs, in which the embryos are more developed and use more oxygen, are more susceptible to drowning.

Pinellas County Commission bans fracking

County commissioners voted Tuesday unanimously to ban fracking in Pinellas.

“After listening carefully to the latest science and the voices of local residents, Pinellas County Commissioners decided to permanently protect the water, health, and environment of our county from the documented damage of fracking and fracking wastewater,” said Jennifer Rubiello, state director of Environment Florida.

“This is what true leadership looks like,” she said.

Commissioner Dave Eggers conceded that fracking is unlikely in Pinellas. But, he said, the ban is necessary to make a statement and to try to protect the county’s water.

Fracking, otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, is a process to extract natural gas or oil from underground rock. The process, opponents say, uses toxic chemicals that can pollute groundwater and pollute the air and soil. The process also uses water that, environmentalists say, is needed for drinking and other uses. And many of the chemicals used, such as benzene, are known carcinogens.

“Fracking has been an environmental disaster,” Rubiello said.

In passing the ordinance, Pinellas became the 11th county in Florida to ban fracking. The city of St. Petersburg is also considering a ban on fracking and on the storage of fracking wastewater within the city limits.

At one time, it appeared to be unlikely that fracking would be an issue in Florida. But a bill permitting fracking was proposed in the most recent Legislative session. More than 80 counties and cities passed resolutions opposing it and were able to kill the bill. But many fear the issue could come up again in the next session of the Legislature.

The Pinellas ordinance will become effective 10 days after it is received by the Florida secretary of state, county attorney Jim Bennet said. He said that means it will likely become effective sometime next week.

Pinellas County asks for suggestions on spending $7.1 million in BP funds

Pinellas residents have another chance to tell county commissioners how to spend $7.1 million in BP settlement money.

The county has created a website,, to gather ideas. The site, which will be available until the end of June, has a short survey for residents to fill out.

In July 2015, the county accepted a settlement from BP of $7.1 million. The agreement represents a one-time revenue source. Once these funds are expended, there will not be any additional related monies.

This is not the first time the county has asked residents for their thoughts on spending the money. Commissioners received more than 800 responses from a citizen engagement survey. Now they hope to get more defined ideas with this second survey.

Project ideas should be closely tied to these following guiding principles:

  • Funded projects should be aligned with the commission’s Doing Things Strategic Plan, and should be planned or funded by Dec. 31, 2017.
  • BP funds will be used for one-time-only expenditures that have a substantial and visible community impact.
  • Funded projects should support Pinellas’ economic and environmental sustainability, and/or create a sense of place.
  • Unincorporated area projects throughout the county will be given priority.
  • Use of county funding for projects within a city will require city participation.
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