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    Irked beach towns dream of seceding

    The ebb and flow of money to Pinellas County and back is unfair, they grumble.

    By AMY WIMMER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001


    Some beach folks think they are giving too much money to a county that gives back too little respect.

    Now, a group of business people, homeowners and even elected officials is suggesting that the Intracoastal Waterway might not provide enough separation from mainland Pinellas.

    Secession, a word whispered occasionally in restaurants, living rooms and city hall corridors, made its public debut Wednesday morning at a meeting of the Barrier Islands Governmental Council.

    "The county doesn't care because you have no political power," Madeira Beach real estate agent Joe Jorgensen told the council. "You gentlemen control enough real estate to form your own county."

    The idea of secession is far more current than the Civil War, though no one has mounted a successful campaign in Florida since Gilchrist County broke away from Alachua in 1925.

    Pasco and Citrus counties were once part of Hernando. And Pinellas itself, now the state's most densely populated county, was once an underappreciated portion of Hillsborough.

    The peninsula formed its own county in 1912 because "there was a general feeling that Pinellas people were kind of an afterthought as far as government services," said Ray Arsenault, a local historian and University of South Florida professor.

    Now it's the beaches that feel neglected.

    They say the latest insult occurred Super Bowl weekend, when county tourism officials paid $619,000 for a sand sculpture in Sand Key, even though the Gulf Beaches Chamber of Commerce had planned a sand sculpture for the south gulf beaches.

    On Wednesday, the mayor of Treasure Island passed out photos of both to other beach officials, pointing out how much nicer he thought the chamber's was.

    But there are issues of great substance.

    Improvements for Gulf Boulevard, the stretch of gulf-front highway that looks more like U.S. 19. Money to help the individual cities and towns keep their beaches clean. And more control over the spending of tourist taxes collected at beach hotels.

    "The goal is, what's the best way to get our people on the beaches served properly?" said J.J. Beyrouti, mayor of Redington Shores. "Even though we're very small, we pay a very big amount."

    The cities and towns pay about $26.5-million in county taxes, or about 10 percent of the money Pinellas takes in through property taxes. That figure does not include taxes many of the municipalities pay the county for libraries, fire districts and bus service; nor does it include tourist tax dollars collected at resorts and mom-and-pop motels along Gulf Boulevard.

    Too little of that money comes back to the beaches, many officials say.

    "It's something they put on the back shelf because it's not that important to them," said Leon Atkinson, the mayor of Treasure Island. "It's dad-burned important to us."

    Just how important remains to be seen.

    The council, composed of representatives from all beach communities except Clearwater, declined Wednesday to formally study the possibility.

    And beach mayors said their relationships with county commissioners seem to be better now than in recent years.

    Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Bob DiNicola even called the idea "ludicrous."

    Tom De Cesare, mayor of Madeira Beach, said: "Maybe they'll look at us and say, 'Hey, they're not happy.' "

    County commissioners contacted Wednesday were surprised to hear the beaches talking of such a drastic measure but remained optimistic.

    So far, few people know how to take the threat of secession.

    "That's a novel idea," said Carole Ketterhagen, director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

    Said Arsenault, the USF professor: "It's an extremely far-fetched idea. I mean, my goodness, it's never going to happen."

    As for a name of this hypothetical county, Treasure Island's mayor likes "Treasure Island County." Madeira Beach's mayor suggested the more innocuous "Gulf Beaches County." Such a county would be Florida's 43rd largest in population but by far the smallest in land mass.

    Perhaps in the end, Pinellas will suit them just fine.

    Said Beyrouti, the Redington Shores mayor: "If the needs of the beaches are met, this will go away."

    - Times staff writer Edie Gross and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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