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    Cost of sandy beach may rise

    [Times photo: Cherie Diez]
    The beach elevation drops off 3 to 4 feet along the water's edge at Upham Beach earlier this month.

    By AMY WIMMER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


    The George W. Bush administration wants to significantly cut the federal dollars spent on beach renourishment, forcing beach communities to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to make up the difference.

    photo
    Graphic:
    Where beach renourishment funds were spent in Pinellas County
    Budget officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have called the change a "voluntary" program in which local governments can opt to pay a bigger share of renourishment costs.

    But critics say those who refuse to ante up will be left with no sand at all.

    "They're trying to say, "If you volunteer, we will budget for you. If you don't volunteer, we will not budget for you,' " said Howard Marlowe, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist who represents such Florida coastal communities as Sarasota, Venice and Lee County.

    It is unclear whether the change would require congressional approval and precisely what share the federal government would end up paying -- some say 35 percent, some say 50 percent.

    U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee who has ushered millions of beach renourishment dollars through Congress, says he will fight the plan.

    "It would take an act of Congress to change the formulas we use now," Young said.

    Steven Hudak, the Washington, D.C.-based budget manager for the corps, outlined the directive in an internal corps e-mail that has made its way into the hands of lobbyists and reporters.

    Hudak could not be reached Monday, and corps officials will not comment on the president's proposed budget, scheduled to be released April 3.

    "It will be presumed that the non-federal sponsors . . . will voluntarily agree to contribute additional funds so that they pay 65 percent of periodic nourishment costs," Hudak wrote in the e-mail.

    Later in the memo, he wrote, "Nevertheless, do not contact non-federal sponsors concerning this change until notified to do so."

    The situation could be a sticky one for the Bush administration.

    The share that the federal government will pay for beach renourishment projects is outlined both in federal law and in contracts the corps enters into with individual communities. Changing the share paid by the government requires altering those contracts.

    Rick McMillen, the corps project manager for Pinellas renourishments, said he doesn't know what impetus local governments would have to renegotiate their contracts.

    "Why would (Pinellas) want to have to sign another agreement with me where they have to pay more money?" McMillen said.

    The government has promised to funnel sand onto Treasure Island's beaches through 2019; St. Pete Beach through 2030; and Sand Key through 2043.

    At the district level, corps officials are trying to understand how to implement the policy.

    Federal officials asked them to retool their budget proposals to reflect a 35 percent federal contribution to beach projects, even though local contracts have not been renegotiated and federal law still calls for the corps to pay a bigger share.

    "I don't know what to tell you," McMillen said. "We're as stunned as you are. We're as confused as you are."

    The corps has pumped $29-million worth of sand onto Pinellas County beaches in the past three years, and the beaches can't get enough.

    Earlier this month St. Pete Beach Mayor Ward Friszolowski asked the corps to revisit Upham Beach, already showing significant signs of erosion less than a year after it was renourished.

    The county shouldn't get its hopes up, McMillen said.

    "I'm not supposed to tell you what's in the current budget," he said, "but I can tell you it's looking pretty grim."

    Currently, the federal government's contribution to local renourishment projects depends on what type of beach needs sand. Public beaches, for example, are considered recreational and receive 50 percent funding; beaches with structures that need protection receive 65 percent.

    In Pinellas, funding for the local share of renourishment projects comes from the countywide tourist tax and from the state, which pays for half of what the feds won't.

    Keith Ashdown, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that opposes most federal spending for local beach renourishment projects, is confident the plan will at least make it into Bush's proposed budget.

    "A lot of people in Congress are saying this is never going to get through," Ashdown said. "This is a double-header, and we're in the first game. What is going to be in the budget is what we're dealing with right now. It's pretty realistic it's going to be there."

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