Vol 7 No. 40 - June 27, 2007

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper FDOT says no safety upgrades for bridge

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper Merchants don’t like being left in dark

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper Tax law will impact Island services

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper Downed nests target of probe

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper Center seeks creative ways to make up lost funding

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper Mitch’s legacy finds a home

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper City to outsource building official duties

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper WMFD not affected by tax legislation




FDOT says no safety upgrades for bridge

By Tom Vaught
sun staff writer

BRADENTON – Despite two fatal accidents in the past year, the Anna Maria Island drawbridge will not be modified to make it safer when the Florida Department of Transportation oversees a rehabilitation of the structure next year.

That’s the word from FDOT officials and engineers when they addressed the Manatee County Community Safety Council on Tuesday, June 19, in Bradenton.

The rehabilitation, which is currently estimated to cost $9.5 million, was let to bid the day after the meeting and the project description calls for updating the mechanics and electronics of the lift mechanism, replacing steel grids on the roadway and resurfacing the roadway on the bridge.

The project will take 400 days and the contractor is expected to wait until after Easter 2008 before starting in order to avoid road closure during season.

The engineer for the project, George Patton, said when they went through the design stage, they looked at removing the curb and adding road-tested railing on the outside of the walkways. What they ended up with was an estimated cost of $15 million, more than twice the $7 million originally budgeted. He said they looked at crash bearing railings, but they figured the bascules that support the bridge would not be able to handle the added weight. At that point, he said they wondered just how strong the bridge was, since it showed unusually light wear for a 50-year-old bridge.

"We re-tested the bridge and it showed there is some reserve capacity, but not enough to hold the safety improvements," he said.

One FDOT official brought figures showing there had been 32 accidents reported on the bridge in the past five years, three of them with fatalities. There was discussion about the nine-inch-high curb along the outside of the roadway that can cause drivers to lose control if they hit it. Patton said they looked at replacing the curbs with walls, but it would likely cause a tunnel effect that would slow traffic and drivers would possible scrape the walls more than they presently hit the curbing now. He said they talked about extending the wall out a couple of feet each side, but that would cut into the five-foot-wide sidewalks. He said they would redo the road striping and reflective markers in the center and along the sides of both lanes and repave the roadway, but that’s the extent of the roadwork.

Patton said the project would extend the life of the 50-year-old bridge 10 to 15 years. After that, they need to look at replacing the bridge with a safer design. He said a new three-lane, fixed-span bridge would cost $40 million today and a drawbridge would cost $50 million.

Patton said they need to start informing the public about the old bridge’s design flaws, since FDOT would be collecting public opinion before choosing the type of bridge it would design.

"It takes about 10 years for design and permitting and you will probably see them start on it soon," he said. "Not only for the Anna Maria Island Bridge, but for the Cortez Bridge too."

Merchants don’t like being left in dark

By Tom Vaught
sun staff writer

BRADENTON BEACH – Business owners in this city’s commercial district are concerned that a delay in getting street lighting replaced could put their customers and employees at risk after dark. Several of them came to the city’s pier team meeting on Friday, June 15, to voice their concerns and ask officials to not put them on the back shelf while work on the pier refurbishment continues.

"We understand that the lighting is connected with the pier and the new lights won’t come until the pier lighting is in," said Barbara Rodocker, owner of The Sun House restaurant on Bridge Street. "I’m surprised we haven’t had a liability issue yet."

The eight or so old-style street lamps that are located along Bridge Street were disconnected about two years ago when some of them showed deterioration to the point of becoming hazardous to pedestrians on the street.

The city pier team, Scenic Highway Committee and commission agreed on a style of light for the pier and approved extending that style to lighting on Bridge Street, but nothing has happened for several months.

"With what’s been in the newspapers over the past few months about gangs, people are afraid and merchants are concerned," said Bridge Street Merchant’s Association member and Linger Longer co-owner Tjet Martin. "We would like to see the city take action."

"I would take exception to that remark," said Mayor John Chappie. "The city has taken action, and you should know that. The lights that were turned off two years ago were decorative and not meant to be street lights, although they might have lit small areas of sidewalk.

"The street lights were connected to the pier lights, but we’re going to put them on their own loop," he said. "Our public works director is looking into whether we need new conduit for the lights, and then we’ll proceed."

"What’s the time frame," Martin asked.

"There is no time frame, but it’s getting done," Chappie replied.

The group was told that the pier meeting is not where this should be discussed. Martin and Rodocker apologized and may make plans to bring it up at a city commission meeting.

Tax law will impact Island services

By Cindy Lane
sun staff writer

The beaches may be raked once a month instead of once a week. The beach trolley could run shorter hours. A water taxi service from Bradenton Beach to the Crosley Mansion might never leave the dock.

These are some of the possibilities that could result from the new state property tax reform law, local officials say.

The law, passed earlier this month by the Florida Legislature, is designed to cut taxes by 7 percent with rate rollbacks and caps.

The cap on future property tax revenues will be based on the growth of personal income and new construction. Municipalities also will be required to roll back taxes this fiscal year to last year’s levels, and those that spent too much, according to a comparative formula, will have to trim 3-9 percent from their budgets. Manatee County is in the 9 percent range, according to the Legislature.

Services likely to be trimmed first include those that improve the quality of life, such as the parks and recreation budget, which includes maintenance of the Manatee and Coquina public beaches, Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann said.

Beach cleaning may be among the first services to be reduced, said Charlie Hunsicker, ecosystems administrator for Manatee County.

"Raking the beach once a day may turn into once a week, or once a month. And at what point do you stop doing it because it doesn’t make any difference? You have to decide on a minimum level of service."

By trimming expenditures on projects such as eliminating non-native grasses from parks, the county will find some ways to save money without obvious, immediate impacts, he said.

"But when we lose resources, that’s when we’ve got to stop the bleeding."

Changes in the free beach trolley also are a big possibility, von Hahmann said, citing examples including instituting a fee or reducing the schedule, but she doubts the county will discontinue the trolley completely, given its popularity.

County Commissioner Carol Whitmore said that she would not support cutting the trolley service on the beach or any other mass transit in the county.

Water taxis may be a different matter — the tax could sink plans for a water taxi shuttle service on Sarasota Bay between Bradenton Beach and the Crosley Estate.

Manatee County Tourist Development Council Chairman Joe McClash warned council members earlier this month that money might not be available for a water taxi, although offering water taxi service for a one-time event is being contemplated for a heavily-promoted jazz concert at the Crosley on Aug. 10.

Von Hahmann disagreed, saying that water taxi funds would not come directly from the county, but from the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The new tax law caused the county to freeze its budget, which could mean $100,000 less for the Anna Maria Island Community Center, Whitmore said.
"We are preparing ourselves that we may lose county funding and we do hope we will able to recoup it from private donations," said the Center’s Development Director Aida Matic, adding that the county pledged $300,000 and has paid $200,000 so far.

Ultimately, the services that escape the knife will be those that have the most vocal supporters, Whitmore said.

It will be weeks before municipal government officials know for certain how much they will have to cut their budgets.

While the Manatee County Property Appraiser’s Office released an estimate on June 1, and will release the tax rolls by July 1, the Florida Department of Revenue has until July 13 to supply the compound annual growth rates for cities and counties that will be used by local governments to calculate maximum millage rates and tax levies allowed under the new law.

Even then, it will be next year before municipalities know the full impact of the law because part of the law is dependent on the outcome of a proposed constitutional amendment vote on Jan. 29, 2008.

That portion of the law includes a provision to place an alternative to the Save Our Homes amendment on the ballot, which would require 60 percent voter approval.

The alternative, dubbed a super-exemption, would affect school funding, impacting Anna Maria Elementary School, and affect low-income senior citizen exemptions, working waterfront assessments, affordable housing assessments and tangible personal property taxes.


Downed nests target of probe

By Laurie Krosney
sun staff writer

BRADENTON BEACH — A Holmes Beach woman has lodged a formal complaint against Manatee County alleging that active night heron nests were destroyed when Australian pine trees were taken down at Coquina Park.

Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission Sgt. Mike Frantz said Barbara Hines filed the complaint three weeks ago.

"I’ve interviewed Ms. Hines and one other witness who said she runs there each morning and she had observed active nesting in those trees," Frantz said. The FWC law enforcement officer said he just got back from two weeks of active duty as a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves, so his investigation was put on hold.

"I do anticipate that I should be able to wrap it up in a week or so," he said.

"If I had observed active nests being destroyed myself, I could have just arrested the people on the spot, but since I didn’t observe it myself, it becomes a two-step process. I have to investigate the allegations and then if I find that active nests were taken, then I forward a complaint on to the state attorney’s office. They then decide whether or not to pursue it."

Tree cutting

Hines lodged the complaint after she said observed about 30 active nests being destroyed when Manatee County’s Parks and Recreation Department was clearing Australian pines from the parking lot at Coquina.

Roughly 65 trees were bulldozed at the park on May 16 to reconfigure the parking lot in an effort to control gang activity there in the wake of a shooting on Easter Sunday.

"I begged them to stop, but they wouldn’t listen and they wouldn’t stop," Hines said. "They just kept cutting the trees down. I know there were baby birds in those nests."

Tom Yarger was the county’s project manager in charge of the Coquina Beach operation. He said the county had planned to cut down about 89 trees, but because of nesting, only 65 were removed.

"There were a number of trees in the south end of the park where we did see signs of active nesting," he commented. "We didn’t take any trees there with squirrels’ nests or birds’ nests. We saw no signs of active nesting where we took out the trees."

Yarger said from what he had observed and from what the workers on-site told him, there were no trees with active nests taken down. He said the assessments were done on the day of the removal — something that Hines maintains would have scared the adult birds away, thereby removing them from the nesting area.

Yarger said the county had all the necessary DEP permits to take down the trees, and he said that’s all that was needed.

Potential violations

Nancy Douglas, who monitors birds state-wide for FWC, said if active night heron nests were destroyed, it would be a violation of state and federal laws.

"Night herons are an endangered species, and you have to get a permit to take even an inactive nest to ensure that there are no birds still there," she said.

Douglas explained that an active nest is any nest with eggs or baby birds still in it.

Only the federal government can issue a permit to take an active nest, and those permits are almost never issued except in dire emergencies, according to FWC Wildlife Officer Chad Allison.

"If you destroy an active nest, it’s a second-degree misdemeanor subject to a maximum fine of $500 and up to 60 days in jail," he said earlier.

Hines is a member of the Holmes Beach Code Enforcement Board. She’s an attorney, a former judge and a board member for Manasota-88, a not-for-profit environmental organization.

Glenn Compton is the director of Manasota-88.

"We very much support Barbara in what she is doing," he said. "We’re monitoring the situation. We find it extremely troubling that Manatee County appears to have no policies in place with regards to nesting birds. That lack of a policy led to the destruction of active nests."

Compton said the destruction is a clear violation of state and federal laws and his group will be watching what FWC does with the complaint.


Center seeks creative ways to make up lost funding

By Pat Copeland
sun staff writer

Community Center staffers are working hard to come up with ways to replace city and county funding they expect to lose due to the new tax legislation.

The cities and county were mandated by the state legislature to keep taxes at 2006-07 levels plus reduce them by a certain percentage, which is 9 percent in Manatee County.

Center officials also learned this week that a $300,000 pledge from the Manatee County Commission has been cut by $100,000.

"It’s really a serious issue," Community Center Executive Director Pierrette Kelly said. "We’ve immediately lost $100,000, and that’s huge. Somehow we have to find a way to make that up."

Kelly said not knowing how much of the Center’s funding will be cut is the most frustrating aspect. In May County Administrator Ed Hunzeker warned social service agencies that there could be drastic funding cuts if property tax reforms require the county to slash its budget.

The Center gets $140,000 in funding from the county and $40,000 from the Island cities. The Center’s total budget for the current fiscal year is $862,000.

"We don’t know how much we’re going to lose; Nobody knows," Kelly pointed out. "It’s extremely frustrating. We’re trying to reinvent things to increase our revenue.

"We’ve always made sure that we didn’t rely too heavily on government funding. We’ve tried to be smart about fundraising and charging program fees."

Kelly said she is planning to increase the types of programs offered at the Center and the new culinary arts and fitness centers are ideal areas to add programs.

"I’ve told everyone to try and come up with ideas for new programs," she said. "We’re trying to be creative and look at what others are doing and think outside the box. I’m meeting with USF, MCC and MTI about offering culinary internships."

She said Center officials have also discussed raising program fees.


Mitch’s legacy finds a home

By Ronald Stanchfield
special to the sun

A heart to help other sick kids is beating strong on Anna Maria Island. Mitchell Chepokas enjoyed his ninth birthday sorting shells on Anna Maria’s white sand beach and floating effortlessly in the Gulf’s warm water that soothed his aching bones being eaten away by osteosarcoma – bone cancer. It was July 2002, his last official birthday.

It was during his last Christmas that Mitch’s concern for other sick kids and their families began impacting the cancer community and the world around him. As a poster child for Children’s Cancer Research Fund, Mitch had become a celebrity, receiving thousands of hits on his Web site each day and monetary gifts from well-wishers around the world. It was money for Mitch to enjoy during his final days.

As Christmas gifts piled upon his hospital bed, Mitch could not ignore the needs of families in adjoining rooms, families whose savings had been consumed by the high cost of coping with a life-threatening illness. He could hear the parents in the adjoining room argue because they had no money for presents, parents living out of their cars in the dead of a Minnesota winter because they had no money.

He told his dad, "Dad, these families need help."

Days later, released and returning to the hospital for treatment, Mitch and his father withdrew the accumulated savings from Mitch’s bank account, which he inserted into envelopes that he signed, "I love you. Mitch." Together, they made their round of children’s rooms, sliding money-laden envelopes under closed doors. Finally empty-handed, they headed for the elevator as Mitch detailed plans for a sequel next Christmas. Then pausing, he said, "I won’t be here next year. I’m dying, aren’t I?" When his dad confirmed the worst, Mitch declared, "Then it’s up to you. Promise?"

In July 2003, three months after Mitchell’s death, his parents fulfilled that promise. With Mitch’s grandparents, whose Anna Maria home Mitch had visited, the family founded the Miracles of Mitch Foundation to improve the quality of life of Minnesota’s children struggling with cancer.

Now, four years later, Mitchell Chepokas’ legacy of selfless care for children suffering from a life-threatening illness has found a second home on Anna Maria. After serving as the Miracles of Mitch Foundation’s executive directors for three years, Mitch’s grandparents, Ron and Diane Stanchfield (now Anna Maria residents) left the organization they helped establish to found KIDS’ Miracle Partners, a Florida-based nonprofit public foundation to bring important quality of life assistance to Florida’s critically ill children and their families. Assisting children undergoing treatment at Lee Memorial in Fort Myers and All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, help will vary from emergency rent and mortgage payments, utility payments, an evening out with dinner for two for weary parents, grocery and gas cards, special gifts for a sick child’s enjoyment or a weekend getaway at a family resort or a few days at a home on the beach, donated by caring families.

All requests for assistance must originate with hospital social workers or authorized medical staff on foundation forms. The foundation’s grants committee will generally make a decision within 72 hours and disperse funds immediately (subject to availability) to the family’s service provider, purchase a gift or initiate travel arrangements. Because KIDS’ Miracle Partners is a public foundation, it depends upon donations from individuals, businesses and private foundations to fund its programs and volunteers to staff its varied services. Interested parties may contact Ronald Stanchfield on his cell phone at (612) 240-1037, e-mail at ronstanchfield@kidsmaraclepartners.org or mail to P.O. Box 2008, Anna Maria, FL 34216.



City to outsource building official duties

By Laurie Krosney
sun staff writer

ANNA MARIA – The city will outsource its building department services following the dismissal last week of former Building Official Kevin Donohue. The decision officially came June 20 at a special city commission meeting.

"We can save $40,000 a year by going with M.T. Causley, Inc.," Mayor Fran Barford told commissioners.

Steve Gilbert, the M.T. Causley employee who will be working in the city, was introduced to the commission and the residents in attendance. Omar Sheppard, another Causley employee, will also work in the city.

The two will work a total of 20 hours a week at a cost of $1,000 per week. Attendance at meetings will be at an extra cost.

Barford explained that building permit revenues are down about $25,000 compared to this time last year. The city issues an average of 1.5 permits a day and performs about 3.3 inspections per work day.

"There were five new construction permits issued in the past 12 months," Mayor Barford wrote in a memo. "By his (Donohue’s) own admission, only about 30 percent of his time was spent performing building official work."

Using the services of M.T. Causley, the city will save $40,000 off the salary and benefits of a full-time building official. The outsourcing company will be providing its own vehicle, transportation and cell phone, resulting in additional savings.

Former City Commissioner Tom Aposporos questioned whether the services should have been put out to bid, but City Attorney Jim Dye said he had reviewed the situation and didn’t feel it was necessary for the city to have gone out to bid.

Former Mayor SueLynn questioned the entire process.

"I’d agree with the economics," she said. "However, my issue is with how the process was carried out. Kevin Donohue has been with the city for over four years. He’s been a dedicated public servant."

SueLynn cited the fact that the building department was in disarray with Donohue took over and that he turned it into a professional department.

The former mayor also said the city would feel the loss as it begins to revise its land development regulations in the upcoming months. She questioned whether or not Gilbert had the same credentials as Donohue and whether the city would be able to retain its favorable flood insurance rating. She was assured Gilbert did.

In the end, Commissioners Dale Woodland, JoAnn Mattick and John Quam voted unanimously to have Dye draw up a contract with M.T. Causley, the same firm that is now handling Bradenton Beach’s building department tasks.

Later, the SueLynn made a public records request for documents related to Donohue’s service and dismissal. The city is preparing those records for her.


WMFD not affected by tax legislation

By Pat Copeland
sun staff writer

Although the West Manatee Fire & Rescue District is not affected by the recent legislation to reduce property taxes, it may feel its effects in the future.

"I think there will be some effect on all public services down the road," Fire Chief Andy Price explained. "The districts that collect ad valorem taxes will be impacted, so you’ll see more automatic and mutual aid. We will send our resources to help other districts, so you’ll see less resources in our district."

The fire district is funded by assessment rather than property taxes. Each type of parcel in the district is assessed a fee, and types of parcels include residential, condominium, mixed residential, mobile home and travel trailer, duplex, commercial and vacant lot.

The fire district can only increase the budget by the five-year average of the Florida personal income growth. For the 2006-07 budget that figure was 5.4 percent, and for the 2007-08 budget, it is 5.78 percent. The district also doesn’t get any state revenue sharing, such as sales and gas taxes.

"When other governments are getting 20 to 30 percent increases, we get 5 to 6 percent, which is really not enough when you have no growth," Price said. "We get hit with 20 percent health care and worker’s compensation increases, so 5 percent doesn’t cut it. We have to make tough choices on cutting back in areas where we don’t want to cut."

Another future issue will be responding to state-wide emergencies.

"When the tax cuts are made and the departments (that are funded by property taxes) have to cut back people, they won’t be able to send aid as often as in the past," he pointed out. "When we send four guys to help somewhere else to help with natural disasters such as wild fires and hurricanes, we still have to fill their shifts here. My fear is that there will be a big fire or hurricane and a city or county asks for assistance and it won’t come."

Price said he is surprised that legislators did not address the problem of high taxes on businesses and non-homesteaded property owners. He said they need to put caps on those taxes and also scrutinize state government spending.

"If the state is bent on reducing local government costs, they need to look at state government as well," he concluded.


"Write a letter to the editor about a story."


<< Go back to Index June 27

AMISUN ~ The Island's Award-Winning Newspaper