DeSantis’ veto pen proves costly for Pinellas projects

The Anclote River Dredge Project is a multimillion-dollar collaboration between city, county, state and federal governments that would restore the channel and its turning basin to its original depths. However, Tarpon Springs officials recently learned that more than $800,000 earmarked by the state for work on the Extended Turning Basin was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, forcing them to come up with a plan B, according to Mayor Chris Alahouzos.

Several leaders of local governments and organizations in Pinellas County had been patiently waiting with fingers crossed on Gov. Ron DeSantis to make his final decisions on the state budget.

The financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic had already lowered expectations for many, but that didn’t make it sting any less when DeSantis on June 29 vetoed millions of dollars for local projects.

Some appropriation requests were modest ($90,000 for sewer upgrades in Largo) and some were bigger ($810,000 for dredging in Tarpon Springs), but the disappointment of getting so close only to have it taken away at the last minute was the same.

Here’s a look at some of those projects that just missed the cut.

DeSantis’ veto pen proves costly for Pinellas projects

Shelby Hughes of Kimley-Horn, a planning and engineering consultant, discusses the city of St. Pete Beach sanitary sewer expansion project with residents during a January forum. Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $1 million for the project, but it is still forging ahead and was expected to begin in early July.

Sanitary sewer expansion project

City: St. Pete Beach

Request vetoed: $1 million

The funds were to be used to help fund a $12.5 million project that would upgrade capacity of the city’s wastewater collection system in an attempt to cut down on sanitary sewer overflows and facilitate commercial development and redevelopment projects.

Mayor Al Johnson said he was hopeful the funding would end up in the final budget. But then the number of COVID-19 cases started increasing again recently, and he could see the writing on the wall.

“I was optimistic until the past few weeks when the numbers started going up again and the governor started backing down on his full Phase 2 reopening, and I thought that’s not good,” Johnson said July 2.

Johnson noted that the state government is heavily reliant on sales tax revenues, which have taken a sharp hit from the pandemic, so he knew his city’s chances decreased as the number of COVID-19 cases increased.

“When I saw the numbers going up again, I said I’m pretty sure we’re toast. And we were,” he said.

The project, which is being financed through a low-interest loan from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, is still forging ahead, though. It will include four new lift stations and a new force main pipe under the inside-southbound lane of Gulf Boulevard from 37th Avenue to Gulf Winds Drive then north on Boca Ciega Avenue to 87th Avenue. It is expected to start in July and be completed in January 2022.

The improved sewer capacity will allow the city to lift a development moratorium that has been in place since 2016.

“In our situation, it’s not only environmental, it’s job growth and it's tourism,” said Johnson, adding that the island hasn’t had a new hotel development since the mid- to early 1980s.

Anclote River dredging expansion

City: Tarpon Springs

Request vetoed: $812,100

The multimillion-dollar Anclote River Dredge Project has been touted as a bipartisan collaboration between local, county, state and federal governments.

The state’s contribution of more than $800,000 for work on the Extended Turning Basin portion of the project was vetoed.

The news was met with disappointment by Mayor Chris Alahouzos who, along with state Rep. Chris Sprowls, Sen. Ed Hooper and other legislators, worked hard to ensure the funding for the section of the project not included in the federal channel would be covered by the state.

“I am very disappointed the governor denied that, but I’m going to encourage my commission colleagues to vote to approve funding for this so the project can move forward because it’s so important not just to the economy of Tarpon Springs, but all of Pinellas County,” Alahouzos said June 29.

Several lawmakers, including U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis, have gone to bat for the dredge project, which would restore the river channel, the turning basin and the extended turning basin to their original depths following decades of silt and sediment buildup.

Alahouzos said the city would likely have to turn to plan B.

“We have money in the Penny for Pinellas funds that I will encourage my colleagues to approve to be used for this project, but that’s money that could have been used for other projects in the city,” he said, adding, “I’m very disappointed because Chris and Ed and (Rep.) Chris Latvala and others have worked so hard for this. I feel sick right now. But we have to go to plan B.”

Keene Park sanitary sewer improvements

City: Largo

Request vetoed: $90,000

Despite an increased effort to lobby legislators, the city in recent years has been shut out of the final budget. Officials hoped a modest request with a focus on environmental quality would change its fortunes this year.

It didn’t, as DeSantis denied the city’s $90,000 request for an engineering analysis to prevent street flooding in the Keene Park neighborhood.

Officials said state funding for the $199,900 project, which would serve an estimated 1,000 residents and enhance water quality in the Allen’s Creek Watershed, could also help delay wastewater utility rate hikes for residents.

Expansion of collegiate high school program

Organization: St. Petersburg College

Request vetoed: $2 million

The school sought funding to replicate its Collegiate High School, a high-performing charter school operated by SPC at its Downtown and Seminole campuses.

The money would’ve allowed SPC to offer the choice to an additional 480 Pinellas County families, according to its appropriations request. The program allows students the opportunity to simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an Associate in Arts degree for free.

SPC hoped to design space at the Downtown and Seminole campuses to house the collegiate high schools.

Highpoint recreation facility

Agency: Pinellas County

Request vetoed: $800,000

Pinellas County Schools hoped to construct outdoor recreation facilities that would include fields, basketball courts, and a playground to serve Highpoint, a low-income community on the east side of central Pinellas County near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

The facilities were targeted toward 800-plus children 16 and younger at Highpoint Elementary and surrounding residents.