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    The week in review

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 19, 2002

    Wild Bill parts ways with wildlife

    INVERNESS -- Paving paradise ruins a good airboat tour, a longtime tour operator and wildlife keeper says.

    Wild Bill MacKay gave away most of his exotic wild animals last week. Feeding and watering the animals had become a burden, and he needed to make room for the widening of State Road 44 E.

    But fans of the fast and loud boats won't be denied. MacKay will continue to offer airboat tours of the Withlacoochee River at his business, Wild Bill's Airboat Tours and Wildlife Park on SR 44 E at the Withlacoochee River.

    MacKay kept tigers, lions, alligators and leopards, among many other creatures, at his business. He said he gave away the animals for two reasons.

    "The state is going to widen the highway right through where the animals' cages were, and it was just getting too hard to find capable helpers," MacKay said. "I was always worrying about whether the animals were getting food and water when I was away."

    Catholic school to randomly test students for drugs

    CLEARWATER -- Starting this fall, students at Clearwater Central Catholic High School will take the kind of tests you can't study for: drug tests.

    The school will begin randomly testing students for drugs and alcohol, which may make it the first high school in the Tampa Bay area to do so and one of only a few in the state.

    No disciplinary action will be taken the first time students test positive, but they will be referred for drug counseling. If students test positive a second time, they will be asked to leave. The policy does not call for law enforcement to be notified.

    "We're just raising the bar, and we're saying we'll help you. We want to educate leaders, and a leader wants to make a difference," said Sister Mary Dion Horrigan, the school's principal. "It's a very ambitious agenda, but that's who we are."

    City's reclaimed water system is tapped out

    ST. PETERSBURG -- St. Petersburg's supply of reclaimed water ran out last week, leaving 10,000 customers with dry spigots.

    The reclaimed water system has had low pressure for three weeks, said Robert Labrie, water systems coordinator.

    "We're having an extremely long dry period. The system is just being overstressed," Labrie said.

    Some people have reported air blowing out from their sprinklers, which could be bad news for city pipes. While the pipes should not explode, the air pressure will severely wear them down.

    The city started using a reclaimed water system in 1977 as a way to get rid of extra wastewater. The system has become so popular that demand now exceeds the supply of 25-million gallons pumped daily from the city's four sewage plants.

    Reclaimed water users are just going to have wait for rain, like the rest of west-central Florida, city officials said.

    Water utility deal taps nerves, resources

    SPRING HILL -- Hernando County is mulling whether to join a mammoth, $520-million deal to bring Florida Water Services under government control. It is potentially the largest utility deal in state history.

    Officials from the Florida Governmental Utility Authority, a four-county coalition considering spending millions for the state's largest privately held utility network, said they will not vote on the purchase until their next meeting on June 20.

    But some officials in affected counties and cities are getting cold feet and others, such as state Rep. Frank Attkisson, say the coalition is a dangerous unregulated monopoly with powers extending beyond what the Legislature had intended when it created the authority in 1999.

    "There is nothing to stop members of the FGUA from taking advantage of nonparticipating counties when it comes to rate-making, cost allocation or other factors," said Attkisson, R-Kissimmee.

    Citrus, Polk, Nassau and Sarasota counties would be the overseers of a system that affects 250,000 people in 26 cities and counties, including water and sewer systems in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

    Roundabout fixes appear to have made a safer circle

    CLEARWATER -- The large Clearwater Beach roundabout has been the site of many accidents, the focus of much outrage and the brunt of many jokes.

    Now the city is hailing the results of safety reports as a hopeful sign that $200,000 in alterations to the roundabout that were completed just before spring break will succeed in preventing accidents.

    Accidents have been reduced by nearly a third, even though traffic was heavier during this year's spring break season than last year's, according to city reports released last week.

    The changes are supposed to make it more obvious how to drive the roundabout.

    "I've been out there recently and my personal experience is that it seems far more intuitive," Commissioner Bill Jonson said. "I haven't seen quite the degree of uncertainty that was there before."

    A British tabloid once poked fun at the city and its drivers for failing to master the circular roadway that is found in numerous intersections in Europe.

    Accidents now number in excess of 550 since police began tracking wrecks in the traffic circle in December 1999, records show, although most have been minor fender-benders. The crashes have gradually declined since the initial year, even before the recent changes, a factor that officials attribute to people becoming more familiar with the circle.

    Some city officials say accidents can be reduced further by the removal of the roundabout's central $2.1-million fountain. Residents have complained that the fountain wastes drinking water, costs more than $200,000 a year to maintain and distracts drivers with sprays of water.

    In short ...

    TAMPA -- The FBI is asking questions about how former Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez handled the dispute over the multimillion-dollar estate of former Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse. Agents have been asking whether Alvarez or others accepted favors or money in the Culverhouse case.

    ZEPHYRHILLS -- Barring rejection by the City Council, Hialeah Police Department Capt. Jerry Freeman will be Zephyrhills' next police chief. Freeman, who must be approved by the City Council, would replace Chief Robert Howell, who retires in September after 40 years with the department.

    Attorneys for former University of South Florida teacher Mazen Al-Najjar filed a petition in federal court in Miami arguing that his continued detention violates immigration laws and the U.S. Constitution. Al-Najjar is a stateless Palestinian linked to terrorism by the federal government, although he has never been charged with a crime. The federal government sent Al-Najjar a notice that it will review his confinement on June 7.

    Coming up this week

    Fire officials in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties will be watching the skies next week, looking for relief from tinder-dry conditions. Fire departments in Hernando County have already issued alerts discouraging outdoor trash burning, and the state Division of Forestry has stopped issuing burn authorizations in especially dry areas. If no rains come and the humidity remains low, expect fire departments to seek an outright ban on burning by the end of the week.

    Pasco County's gas tax proposal goes before the County Commission at its meeting Tuesday. Four of the five commissioners have to agree on any increase, and so far they are split on whether it should be a 1-, 2-, or 3-cent increase if any.

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