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Clearwater debates beauty vs. the budget

As city leaders look for ways to pay for recent beautification projects, some residents say making the city pretty always is money well spent.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


CLEARWATER -- The 180-foot-wide fountain in the middle of the roundabout at Clearwater Beach makes a dramatic statement as it shoots geysers of water 30 feet into the air.

The roundabout cost at least $8.7-million to design and build, although a final figure hasn't been disclosed.

And recently, city officials learned what it would cost to maintain the structure: About $238,000 every year.

City officials always knew the bills would be high, but they winced when discussing the maintenance price tag last week.

"That, to me, is a substantial amount, and I also feel a somewhat exorbitant amount," said Commissioner J.B. Johnson. "We need to find methods to reduce that expense. "Sometimes when we get projects put before us, we are not briefed well enough on the costs of the maintenance ahead," Johnson said.

Beautifying the city was a hallmark of former City Manager Mike Roberto's goals. December saw the completion of the beach roundabout. Just recently, the city finished landscaping 19 medians on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. But thanks to such efforts, the city's parks budget for landscaping maintenance has more than doubled during the past year to about $546,000 annually.

And future beautification projects have been proposed for N Mandalay Avenue, N Greenwood Avenue and Cleveland Street. Those only will add to the annual maintenance costs.

The costs have some residents wondering whether spending the money is worth it. Jean Stuart, an avid gardener, longtime resident and retired school teacher, says it is.

"A lot of people think there might be too much, and they don't want to spend a lot of money to maintain it," said Stuart, who leads the city's Beautification Committee. "I think it makes our city much more attractive to live in. It makes people feel better not to look at concrete all the time. I think we need trees and flowers in our lives."

But even Stuart says the city needs to scrutinize ways to keep maintenance costs low.

City's 'largest ashtrays'

Flowering yellow lantana shrubs and clumps of fuchsia pentas living on the sun-blasted medians along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard don't have it easy.

So the city budgeted about $100,000 in new expenses this year to help the landscaping planted on Gulf-to-Bay survive.

It's not easy, says Joel Atkinson, who runs Professional Grounds Management of St. Petersburg. He has the maintenance job.

"It's our hottest property to maintain," Atkinson said. "There's no shade. The asphalt just attracts the sun. Even my guys get so exhausted out there working on those islands."

In addition to heat and drought, the virgin plantings have had to endure people, who crash cars through the landscaping and routinely toss cigarette butts out their windows.

"I'd call the medians probably the largest ashtrays in the city," Johnson said.

About three weeks ago, a fire -- likely started by a cigarette -- burned about 300 square feet on one of the medians, Atkinson said.

Already this year, the city reports replacing 177 lantana, 57 liriope grasses and 155 hot-pink penta plants, said Kevin Dunbar, director of parks and recreation.

Atkinson says the city-designed mixture of plants complicates maintenance.

Pentas like to drink more water than lantana, Atkinson said. The medians' watering system drips the same amount of water through each island, so the lantanas are growing fasterand becoming more of a chore to trim.

After a few years, the lower regions of pentas usually begin to deteriorate, Atkinson said, and the plants require replacement.

Opal Schallmo, horticultural training specialist for the Pinellas County Cooperative Extension Service, confirms all of that.

Still, the plus side of the pentas and lantana, Schallmo said, is that they "bloom and bloom and bloom" with bright shades of flowers. And lantana can be quite durable and drought-resistant. She has a bed that's lasted 20 years.

Clearwater had few options when choosing low-growing flowers that would bloom constantly, said Phil Graham, a St. Petersburg landscape architect who has co-written a book on highway landscape design.

The state Department of Transportation has strict restrictions for medians that limit plants to less than about 18 inches high, Graham said.

But would Graham have chosen pentas and lantana for Gulf-to-Bay? He wouldn't say.

Keeping maintenance costs low

Mahshid Arasteh, the city's public works administrator, says that future maintenance is always considered in the design of beautification projects. But now, she is working to trim such costs.

The bills for the new Clearwater Beach entranceway area come in several sizes:

Estimates show it will cost $70,000 yearly to maintain all the tropical landscaping planted around the roundabout and fountain last year.

Commissioners recently approved spending $118,000 during the next year to hire a St. Petersburg company to clean and maintain the decorative, modern fountain.

Above that, the city expects to spend $120,000 more on water and electric bills to run the fountain annually, Arasteh said. That's a $10,000 monthly utility bill.

At the urging of commissioners, Arasteh said, her engineers are trying to reduce monthly bills for water for the roundabout fountain.

The project could even be redesigned. Water from the fountain could be recycled into a cooling system that keeps several expensive pumps working, which would save water, Arasteh said.

But other maintainance costs will be difficult to trim, several officials predicted.

Cleaning sand and scum from the fountain, Dunbar said, is "extremely labor-intensive."

The fountain requires someone to clean out its filters three times weekly and to occasionally power-wash its concrete basins. Frequently, someone has to go vacuum out sand that blows into it, Dunbar said. There also is the job of keeping the pumps in working order.

"It's a huge, very, very complex piece of equipment," Graham said. "But we did design in it in such a way that it would operate with the minimum maintenance possible."

Still, because of the high cost of maintenance, the city will investigate hiring a specialized employee who could do the job for less than $118,000, Dunbar said.

Officials also had other ideas to offset costs for Gulf-to-Bay maintenance.

Earlier this year, they encouraged businesses to volunteer to help the city pay for the upkeep of medians near them. Five or six companies volunteered to write checks of $3,000 to $6,000. But the program hasn't yet gotten off the ground.

"We have a mock-up of a sign" that would display volunteering businesses' names, said City Engineer Mike Quillen. "But we haven't had time to pursue that."

Quillen said issues like making the roundabout easier to drive -- forget about keeping the flowers fresh -- have been consuming most of his department's time.

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