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Senate cuts funds for sewer project

Proposed funding for the Chassahowitzka sewer system is reduced by $400,000, but enough money is available for the work to move forward.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 1, 2002

Each time the Chassahowitzka sewer system emerges from a proposed state budget with funding, such as the $1.125-million the Senate earmarked last week, the project's advocates are both grateful and cautious.

It's great we got that much, they say, and now we need to make sure no one siphons those dollars to another project before the budget becomes final.

But that is what happened Thursday morning in the Senate appropriations committee, where lawmakers agreed to channel $400,000 to a sewer system in Callahan, a small town outside Jacksonville where raw sewage is spilling into a schoolyard. The move leaves the Chassahowitzka project with $725,000.

The new amount is slightly less than the $750,000 shown for Chassahowitzka in the proposed House of Representatives budget. The two chambers will hash out a common figure in the final budget that goes to the governor, who either will approve or veto the funding for each project.

While the decrease in funding will not delay the effort to bring central sewer lines to about 400 homes in Chassahowitzka, the story comes with a twist: The legislator behind the funding shift is Sen. Richard Mitchell (D-Jasper), who represents the west side of Citrus County and always has fought for the Chassahowitzka project.

Like all lawmakers, Mitchell faces the Solomon-like task of deciding how to divide limited dollars in his district, which meanders across 18 counties.

To provide some funding for Callahan and several other projects, Mitchell made the "hard decision" to squeeze money from Chassahowitzka and other projects in his district and elsewhere, legislative assistant Dean Papapetrou said. Mitchell filed the funding amendments Wednesday.

Of the $7.6-million Mitchell's district has received for water-quality projects over the past three years, Papapetrou said, $3.5-million has gone to the Homosassa and Chassahowitzka sewer systems.

"The goal is not to hinder anybody, but to help everybody with limited resources," Papapetrou said.

Papapetrou called County Commissioner Gary Bartell on Thursday morning after the appropriations committee approved the shift to make sure the Chassahowitzka project could still move forward with $725,000.

"He wanted to make sure the reduction from $1.125-million to $725,000 would not kill the project or stop the project, and I assured him that would not happen," Bartell said.

"While I'm disappointed we didn't get all of it, I'm tickled to death we'll get a major portion of it," Bartell added. "I understand money is extremely tight from the state and there are huge demands on the Legislature. I still feel very fortunate that if we get $725,000 (in the final budget), it will move forward."

Mickey Newberger, spokesman for the Chassahowitzka River Restoration Committee, criticized Bartell for not fighting to keep every dollar. Newberger has lobbied for Chassahowitzka funding over the past several years, reminding legislators of a University of South Florida study confirming that nearby septic systems are polluting the Chassahowitzka River.

"It's frustrating that you have to deal with a government official that's trying to block everything you're doing (toward a project) that's in the proven interest of the public's health," Newberger said.

Bartell said Newberger's criticisms are unfounded.

"The county and the state have done everything we possibly can to get funding for it," Bartell said. "I give (Newberger) credit, but he needs to give us credit, too.

"I guess you can be greedy, but I've got to look at the big picture," Bartell added. "We've got to do other projects, and I'm not going to sacrifice the integrity or credibility of Citrus County because (the Legislature) sees fit to reduce this funding from $1.125-million to $725,000."

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