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Federal cuts eroding Pinellas beach-repair funds

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County's famed beaches have long been the mainstay of the region's vital tourism industry.

But protecting those pristine white sands from wind and waves has been costly, with more than $100 million of federal funds spent on beach nourishment and shoreline protection over the past four decades.

Now, with federal budgets under increased scrutiny, county officials fear that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also oversees spending on levees and hydroelectric plants, may no longer see beach nourishment projects as its top priority. Cuts could mean the Corps will lower the number of projects it funds by 10 percent during the next few years.

The latest warning given to county commissioners Tuesday is another sign that the era when area beaches were protected by congressional earmarks mostly secured by the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young is over, and that the county may soon have to explore other funding options to maintain its vital tourism industry. That likely will include spending more of the county's bed taxes on beach projects.

“There's no more congressional earmarks; we no longer have Representative Bill Young to represent us and champion our beaches, and sea level is rising,” said Andy Squires, Pinellas coastal and fresh water resources manager, who recently met with Corps officials at a conference. “We need to escalate our efforts.”

The most immediate threat to the county's tourism industry is the expiration of the 50-year agreement between the county and the Corps for ongoing nourishment of Treasure Island beaches.

A provision in a bill in the U.S. Senate would extend the current agreement for 15 years, but the matching bill in the U.S House of Representatives has no such provision, said Squires.

Even if the agreement is extended, that would only initiate a new study by the Corps to see if further beach nourishment is warranted.

“Those studies take three years,” Squires said. “If you do the math, you can see we're running out of time.”

If the agreement is not extended, future nourishment projects would be considered as new requests, which the Corps would be reluctant to commit to in the current financial climate, Squires said. Federal funding accounts for roughly 60 percent of the cost of beach nourishment with the state and the county chipping in 20 percent each.

Tourism is considered the lifeblood of Pinellas County's economy, with visitors spending $2.3 billion on lodgings and providing a $7.3 billion overall economic impact in 2012, according to the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council.

But the beaches that draw visitors require almost constant upkeep. This year, $16.2 million will be spent restoring Upham Beach and two beaches on Treasure Island damaged by Tropical Storm Debby in 2012.

“It's pretty much a continuous project,” Squires said. “As soon as that project finished, we'll be working on the permit for the next one.”

One possible source of funding is bed taxes.

In just over a year, Pinellas County will make the final payments on construction bonds for Tropicana Field, freeing up roughly $6 million a year. The county also could increase its bed tax to 6 percent since sales from stays at hotel rooms and lodgings in 2013 exceeded $600 million, the state threshold to be classified as a high-tourism impact community.

Concerned about funding, the county recently hired a federal lobbyist. Commissioners also said the county needs to impress on state lawmakers the importance of beaches to the county's economy.

Across Florida, requests for state funding total $90 million, with only $25 million included in the current budget. That could increase to $40 million in this year's legislative session.

“They have to see this not as an environmental issue but as economic development and preserving all those jobs that rely on tourism in Pinellas County,” Commissioner Charlie Justice said.

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