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    Pinellas stiffens watering fines, enforcement

    Fines will almost double, and ads that advocate conservation and warn scofflaws will soak up $300,000.

    By LISA GREENE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


    Water scofflaws soon will face higher fines and tougher enforcement as officials in drought-stricken Pinellas County redouble efforts to reduce water consumption.

    Pinellas County commissioners late Tuesday approved the two measures in hopes of reducing water use by 5 percent, meeting conditions of an emergency order by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

    Repeat offenders could be fined as much as $500, and more people will be out looking for them.

    The county soon will embark on a $300,000 media blitz, emphasizing the need to save water and consequences of failing to do so.

    "This is a lot of money to spend," said Commissioner Bob Stewart.

    "Sometimes you have to spend money to save money. In this case, you have to spend money to save water."

    The county will establish a 24-hour water hotline that people can call with information about illegal watering.

    Pick Talley, the county utilities director, had said last week that he didn't know whether any new measures would be effective.

    He stressed Tuesday that he expects the county's plan to work, and over the next few years, hopes the county can cut water consumption by 15 percent.

    Talley presented commissioners with a $315,000 media budget, to be spent in May and June for ads that would appear on TV, radio, in newspapers, on billboards and at local movie theaters.

    Commissioners cut the amount slightly and asked county workers to research where the ads would be most effective.

    Talley also presented a range of fines.

    Some commissioners argued that the county should drop its current policy of warning people first and only fining repeat offenders.

    "Maybe a warning is a luxury we can't afford," said Commission Chairman Calvin Harris.

    "When people break the law, they expect to be punished."

    In the end, commissioners compromised, agreeing to keep the warnings but increase the fines.

    They now will start at $135 for the second violation and go up to a $500 maximum, instead of the previous $60 to $320 range.

    Commissioners also agreed that more county workers will be looking for violations, though the specific number was not known late Tuesday.

    Also at Tuesday's meeting, Stewart angrily told other commissioners that, without their knowledge, a Pinellas County lobbyist, Fred McCormack, had pushed a proposal to state lawmakers that would have weakened Swiftmud's authority.

    The plan would have severely restricted the authority of the state's five water management districts to fine or otherwise punish those who violate the limits of their pumping permits under emergency circumstances.

    Stewart said he learned the proposal had been dropped, but he was angry that the Pinellas lobbyist had acted without commissioners' knowledge. Stewart, who is on the Tampa Bay Water board, said that board didn't know about the effort either.

    "There's been a colossal breakdown in the role of a policymaker and the role of staff," Stewart said. "In this case, somebody went across the line."

    Other commissioners said they didn't know the man lobbies for the county. Some county staffers did know, including Talley.

    "It was something we knew about and we should have let them know about, and that was a mistake on our part," Talley said.

    But Talley wouldn't say whose idea the proposal was, saying he needs to report to commissioners first.

    - Times staff writer Jean Heller contributed to this report.

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