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County's Clam Funding Deserves More Scrutiny


This week, the Manatee County Commission finally confirmed that it planned to use funding from the community-initiated Conservation and Parks Projects Referendum to fund the county’s quietly approved $500,000 commitment to plant clams in Sarasota Bay–ostensibly to reduce nitrogen in bay waters and enhance seagrass growth. This is in addition to millions of dollars that’s been allocated by the state and millions more that are being sought from the federal government. The lack of notice and discussion around this considerable investment raises several red flags.
Approved by voters in November of 2020, the Conservation and Parks Projects Referendum authorizes up to $50 million in tax proceeds for the acquisition, improvement, and management of land to protect natural resources and provide parks in Manatee County. The funding is administered by the Environmental Lands Management and Acquisition Committee, which serves as an advisory committee to the BOCC, making recommendations on environmental land acquisition and management issues, including recreational planning.
During the August 9 Manatee County Commission meeting, "All Clams on Deck" was listed under commissioner reports by Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge but without any action measures listed. Ed Chiles, a politically powerful restauranter on Anna Maria Island gave a presentation and, during it, requested that the county kick in $500,000 to the Gulf Shellfish Institute (on whose board Chiles sits), noting that local state legislators Jim Boyd and Will Robinson had managed to secure $2.5 million from the state budget, while Congressman Vern Buchanan was working to secure $2.5 million more in federal funding, later said to be from the Army Corps of Engineer’s budget. County Attorney Bill Clague buzzed in to ask whether a Restore Act grant to the Gulf Shellfish Institute in the amount of $350,000 was part of the ask, or in addition to the half million dollars being requested, and Chiles confirmed it was the latter.
Chiles gave a brief but passionate presentation that often mentioned the science and all of the possible benefits. He referenced the then-recent disaster at Piney Point and the benefits of being out in front of what he felt was an inevitable carbon-credit program. Noticeably absent were hard scientific data to support the idea that clam populations could be drastically increased and, that if they were, it would lead to a reduction in nitrogen, as well as detailed information on how the millions of dollars would be spent by GSI and what the expected minimum results might be. In fact, Chiles called it a "science project" on multiple occasions, and implied that the investment would provide an answer to whether it would create a significant impact rather than validating hard scientific data that demonstrated it was likely.
Nevertheless, commissioners fawned over the presentation, falling over themselves to congratulate and thank Chiles. It was clear going in that Commissioner Van Ostenbridge would have the support of commissioners Baugh, Satcher, and Kruse, but he also found nothing but support across the board.
Commissioner Carol Whitmore actually suggested that the stormwater management fund might be a source for the money, and Commissioner Misty Servia said that what she liked most about the pitch was that Chiles was "leading with the science." Commissioner Bellamy jumped in quickly to ask how they could move forward that day and Van Ostenbridge had his answer, by way of a motion to allot the funding that literally had commissioners fighting for a chance to be the one to offer a second.
For quite some time since that vote, Whitmore has been asking county staff via email about the funding and exactly where it would come from. However, Whitmore, who was primaried by a candidate supported by her fellow Republicans on the board and their developer friends exactly two weeks after that August 9 meeting, has been completely marginalized since the election, along with fellow outgoing Republican Commissioner Servia, who met the same fate.
When the board unexpectedly attempted to cancel all meetings until the new board was seated following the November 9 election, it seemed as though neither outgoing commissioner would get the chance to use the dais before leaving the board. However, because Thursday’s land use meeting had already been noticed, the board was forced to hold it, and Whitmore was finally able to raise the issue publicly during citizen comments. At that point, staff confirmed that the funding would come from the ELMAC tax.
Commissioners Whitmore and Kruse felt that it was a bit of a stretch to use money designated for purchasing or improving environmental lands on a clam project, but Van Ostenbridge, the current board chair, shut them down by just repeatedly saying "submerged lands." It definitely does not seem like this is the kind of project voters would have thought they were signing up for given the language of the referendum. However, more importantly, we need more discussion and debate on whether this is an investment likely to provide an equitable return to taxpayers.
There does not seem to be a lot of evidence that planting clams can in any way meaningfully reduce nitrogen levels in our waterways (referred to as denitrification). In fact, studies show that oysters and clams have relatively little impact on nitrogen levels with the former being more effective than the latter. Clams are an important part of the ecosystem and restoring populations might be a worthwhile investment, although my understanding is that theFlorida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has attempted this with very little success, concluding that many of the aquatic ecosystems have become less habitable for bivalve mollusks.
As such, it is fair for taxpayers to ask whether the biggest benefactor of this investment is going to be the seafood industry. If so, there may still be an economic justification for the state to invest in the program, but that is an entirely different conversation that certainly would not involve ELMAC funds and would be much harder to justify for a county investment of any kind.
This is an expenditure that would have better been handled via a work session, followed by a publicly noticed item on the expenditure itself. Had that happened, I suspect that local environmental activists would have shown up to counter the argument that existing science supported the plan as presented while arguing that, if the goal was to improve water quality in the bay, county money would be better spent on enhancing stormwater management, the largest contributor of nitrogen.
The clam experiment already has millions in funding from a bloated state budget and should be able to use that to gather evidence that the technique can work in a cost-benefit effective manner before asking the county to raid its ELMAC funds. The fact that it was instead snuck in and approved on the fly raises concerns that such a thoughtful and deliberate process, one that indeed may invite well-credentialed opposition, is what was being avoided.
Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of ourweekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County governmentsince 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Clickherefor his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is availablehere.


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