TARPON SPRINGS – During his annual legislative update in Tarpon Springs last August, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis said securing $3.5 million in federal funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Anclote River Dredge Project was “the biggest victory we got in 2018.”
The massive, multi-agency effort would completely dredge the river channel as well as the main vessel turning basin, something that hasn’t been done in more than in 25 years.
“I knew this was a major priority, and I went to bat,” Bilirakis told the audience at the update at the historic Train Depot Museum.
Despite the efforts of Bilirakis, and other state, local and county officials, including former Gov. Rick Scott, now Florida’s junior U.S. senator, city officials have been told that the federal funding for the project was temporarily diverted to Hurricane Michael relief efforts in the Florida Panhandle.
“There are three tiers of projects, and Anclote was a tier three project,” Bilirakis spokesperson Summer Robertson said by phone on March 5. Tiers one and two include life safety or high priority projects, she said.
According to Summers, the Corps of Engineers said it would fund projects in tiers one through three, and then Hurricane Michael happened. The large-scale disaster created a need in the Panhandle for many tier one and two projects.
Under Corps of Engineers guidelines, the agency can’t fund any tier three projects if that would leave tier one and two projects unfunded, Robertson said. “So, they’ve diverted the money from all of the tier three projects that were funded, including Anclote, and they’ve sent that money to the Panhandle.”
Robertson said an emergency funding package is scheduled to be voted on soon, which is expected to replenish the funding for tier three projects.
“We have bipartisan consensus on an emergency supplemental package that should be moving very, very soon,” she said.
Bilirakis, Robertson said, has discussed the matter with Mick Mulvaney, the director of the federal Office of Management and Budget and the acting White House chief of staff, and tier three projects would be funded again once the supplemental appropriation is approved.
When asked for a rough timeframe on the vote, Robertson replied: “I would say within the next few weeks. It didn’t get into the government reopening, that package — the deal wasn’t worked out in time — but it’s been worked out since then. So, I don’t have a date, but I would say within the next couple of weeks we would expect to see that move forward.”
Rumors that the money to pay for the Anclote River dredging and other tier three projects was diverted to pay for President Donald Trumps proposed southern border wall aren’t true, Robertson said. “We received confirmation from the White House that it is not being diverted for the wall,” she said.
The Corps of Engineers has not lost any of its funding to the wall, she added.
The temporary diversion of the dredging funds will have had no effect on the dredging project’s forward momentum, Mayor Chris Alahouzos said.
“I understand the federal funding is temporarily held up, but the project is still going on,” Alahouzos said. “The design phase is still moving on and we hope the funding will be in place by the time it’s completed. But the project will not be held up at all.”
The mayor added: “I know there are so many people who are depending on the river, who are concerned about this and have worked very hard on this, including the Marine Commerce Committee. They made as many calls to state officials as I did, and they should be commended for the work that they did.”
In a related development, the mayor, on Feb. 20, approved a recommendation to enter an interlocal agreement with Pinellas County to have the county contribute $300,000 to help fund the planning, engineering and design of the project.
According to the terms of the agreement, the money will be paid to the city on a reimbursement basis after payments have been made by the city to the Corps of Engineers.