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Metro Week in Review

Horse patrol is put out to pasture

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Police Chief Jim Farley will have two of his officers auctioned or donated to cut expenses.

Two horses, Santana and Scout, made up the department's mounted patrol unit, one of the chief's first and favorite programs.

Though covered mostly through donations and fundraising, critics argued that there were hidden expenses with the horses, chiefly time officers spent away from traditional policing duties.

"It's nice to have, but I didn't think taxpayers could afford the nice-to-haves," City Council member Kitty Ebert said.

Farley attributed the decision to short staffing, because two officers have been called to military duty and a third has been put on notice.

Ban on illegal fireworks picks up steam with cities

ST. PETERSBURG -- After a sputtering start, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch's proposal to crack down on illegal fireworks is starting to catch on with other public officials.

Last week the Clearwater City Commission unanimously backed the move and Welch received mostly encouraging words from Mayor Rick Baker and the St. Petersburg City Council.

It all started last July 4, when Welch was dismayed by the number of explosions in his neighborhood and the potential for danger. He soon after brought the matter to the County Commission, arguing that the state law with its numerous loopholes needed to be beefed up with strict enforcement.

Sparklers would not be affected, nor would professional displays. In essence, the ban would eliminate loopholes in the current law that allow customers to buy illegal fireworks by signing forms that say they are in businesses that require explosives.

Fireworks sellers would have to prove their customers are in such businesses, or risk being shut down.

Pasco GOP reports omit big donors

NEW PORT RICHEY -- Some key figures are missing from the Republican Party of Pasco County's campaign finance reports.

The report listed the smallest of contributions on its campaign finance reports: $10 from a teacher, $20 from a nurse, $25 from a dentist. The party did not, however, report three of its largest contributions from private citizens. Those three checks, each for $2,500, were used to pay for a judicial endorsement mailer, party officials said.

And the party did not report its largest expenditure of 2002: $7,339.50 for a mailer endorsing five candidates for circuit judge.

Party officials said they were not aware of the bookkeeping blunder until contacted by a Times reporter who discovered the mistakes. Scott Factor, treasurer for the Pasco Republican Executive Committee, said he would file amended reports.

Judicial races are nonpartisan and traditionally have been staid affairs. That began to change in 1998, when a Pinellas judge ruled that political parties can make endorsements in judicial races. Then in 2002, a U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the door to more political activity in these campaigns.

PSC questions sale of giant water utility

The Florida Public Service Commission has ordered the state's largest private water company to submit an application for approval before selling 150 utility systems throughout the state to a pair of tiny Panhandles cities.

Florida Water Services already has agreed to sell its 152 systems statewide -- including systems in Spring Hill, Citrus Springs, Hillsborough County and other Tampa Bay area communities -- to a pair of Panhandle towns for $507-million.

With the Feb. 14 closing date looming, the commission on Tuesday unanimously requested Florida Water Services Corp. file paperwork by Friday outlining the pending sale to the Florida Water Services Authority.

At issue is whether the authority created by the cities of Gulf Breeze and Milton, which have a combined population of less than 13,000 people, qualifies as a "government authority" that would be exempt from state regulation.

If not, the commission would have the right to determine if the proposed sale is in the public interest.

Tampa mayor laments amphitheater proposal

TAMPA -- Tampa needs another big venue like a tractor pull needs a symphony, city officials have lamented.

Mayor Dick Greco sent a strongly worded letter Wednesday to the Florida State Fair Authority expressing "deep concern" about the potential financial impact a planned amphitheater there will have on downtown, especially the taxpayer-backed St. Pete Times Forum.

Fairgrounds executive director Rick Vymlatil said a contract spelling out the terms of the amphitheater deal was scheduled for discussion at a fair authority meeting on Monday.

But the fair authority has only received a draft of the contract on the 20,000-seat, $18-million venue to be built by Clear Channel Entertainment. With the annual state fair starting last week, a vote on the contract may be delayed until March.

In short . . .

-- TAMPA -- Another deadline has come and gone, and Tampa Bay Water's desalination plant still isn't ready. Beginning Thursday, the $110-million desal plant in Apollo Beach was supposed to start producing at least 3-million gallons of drinking water per day.

Tampa Bay Water, the state's largest wholesale water supplier, is building the biggest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere in southern Hillsborough County. The plant will treat brackish water from Tampa Bay and should eventually produce 25-million gallons of drinking water per day.

Because it missed the deadline, Covanta must eventually give Tampa Bay Water twice as much free water as was lost, or 6-million gallons per day. Missing the deadline by 10 days, for example, would cost Covanta 60-million gallons of water. Covanta will charge $1,250 for every million gallons of water it produces.

-- Starting late in March, Tampa International Airport will be a noisier neighbor. The airport will close its most heavily used runway for repairs. Planes will use a shorter runway that requires them to fly over more homes, resulting in significantly more engine noise for residents.

Coming up this week

-- Pinellas school officials finally have all the school choice applications entered into the computer system, but there's one thing holding up the process of letting parents know where their kids are going: Tuesday's School Board meeting. Nothing can happen until after board members vote on an amendment referred to as "professional courtesy preference" that would allow teachers to get their children into a school where they teach. That courtesy could affect racial ratios, however.

-- On Tuesday Citrus County commissioners tackle the controversial mandatory garbage collection issue again. Some local haulers and scores of people have opposed this in the past.

-- Compiled by staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne

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