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    Thrift trumps road's beauty

    Commissioners turn down an appealing offer to share costs on median improvements, citing the continuing cost of maintaining greenery.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


    LARGO -- Is there a limit on how much should be spent gussying up the city? in the minds of those who control the city's purse, the answer is yes.

    City commissioners killed an idea to spend $90,000 to spruce up a stretch of Seminole Boulevard, one of the city's most heavily traveled roads, by installing lush and colorful plants and trees.

    Workers would have planted eight crepe myrtle trees, 19 green bottonwoods and 20 cabbage palms, among others inside 18 medians between State Road 686 and 126th Street N. The medians already are adorned with East Plaltka holly trees and Indian hawthorne and liriope shrubs.

    State transportation officials offered to pay half the $180,000 cost. That didn't stop commissioners from killing the plan in a 4-3 vote Tuesday.

    The commissioners overrode the wishes of city staff members, who noted residents' praise of the city's beautification projects along East Bay Drive and Missouri Avenue. Still, commissioners in the fiscally conservative city were uncomfortable with spending the money.

    Before voting against the plan, Commissioner Marty Shelby recalled a recent conversation he had with a Clearwater city commissioner who talked about the exorbitant costs -- $97,000 a year -- to landscape 19 medians along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, that city's gateway to its beach.

    "It's real easy to spend money when times are good, but when times are bad, that money (to maintain the landscaping) is still going to have to be spent," said Shelby, stressing he is not being cheap, but is concerned about the cost to taxpayers.

    There's also the issue of keeping up the landscape. Clearwater's landscaping maintenance costs have more than doubled the past year to about $546,000 annually.

    In comparison, the $90,000 to add the shrubs and trees along Seminole Boulevard might seem like a steal.

    Some commissioners didn't see it that way. Since 1997, Largo has spent $161,000 in median improvements along East Bay Drive, Missouri Avenue and near the Walsingham Bridge. The city spends $20,000 a year to maintain the landscaping along those streets, although officials recently adopted a program to seek corporate sponsorship of medians to offset the costs.

    "It's a lot of money," said Mayor Bob Jackson, who voted against the measure.

    Commissioner Pat Gerard disagreed. The northern tip of Seminole Boulevard is at Largo Central Park, the heart of the city's downtown. Gerard saw the project as an opportunity to impress motorists as they head into downtown Largo, which the city has been trying to revitalize through numerous efforts.

    "It sets the tone that you are in the city of Largo," she said.

    Those who voted against the plan insisted otherwise, offering additional reasons for their objections. Much of that stretch of Seminole Boulevard is in unincorporated Pinellas and some commissioners did not see the wisdom of paying for the landscaping improvements and the annual costs to maintain the property.

    "I'll be damned to spend Largo's tax money to beautify some unincorporated area," said Shelby, who noted that Seminole Boulevard is a state road and suggested the DOT should pay for the improvements and its upkeep.

    Gerard discounted that argument, saying most motorists think that stretch of Seminole Boulevard is in Largo. The improvements would make a good impression, she said.

    "I just thought it was not a particularly good argument," she said.

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