Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant has been as patient as a mayor can be. But the City of Palmetto continues to register as an afterthought to Manatee County Commissioners, who have once again made major decisions regarding resources related to the municipality without discussing the potential impacts with city officials. From the Little League fiasco to renaming the Civic Center, to last week's decision to downgrade the DeSoto Bridge project into oblivion, the BOCC continues to show little regard for the city north of the river.
At 2012's final Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting, Manatee BOCC Chairman John Chappie presented the MPO board with a letter suggesting a shift in priorities be submitted to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), pertaining to the DeSoto bridge's future. It was his first attendance as a member and he prepared it without any communication with the Mayor of the City of Palmetto.
Adding insult to injury, Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant is the sitting chair of the MPO board, and her city was hosting the board's meeting for the first time at the civic center, which had recently been renamed The Bradenton Area Convention Center, even though it's located in Palmetto. The renaming also went forward without any input from Mayor Bryant or the City Commission.
The mayor is known to be a very reasonable person, but that too appears to be of little concern to the BOCC. Both the DeSoto Bridge (301 Bridge) and the Civic Center are located in her city, but when the Mayor suggested putting the bridge issue on a future agenda for discussion, Commissioner Larry Bustle replied, "We respectfully disagree."
Bryant's still looking for the respect in "respectfully." her concerns included the large sum of money already spent, attending to the needs of the 50 year-old deteriorating bridge and the many safety issues that surround the aging structure.
Bustle, a former Palmetto Mayor himself, spoke for Commissioner Chappie, who at least appeared apprehensive in forcing the decision upon the mayor and her Palmetto residents. Commissioner Bustle is familiar with wasted money. Just hundreds of feet from where he was sitting at the time stands a million-dollar blinking light, which while Mayor, Bustle commissioned for a traffic signal without ever properly meeting FDOT requirements to have it activated as a fully operational red to green signal, one of which was that extension of 7th Street West to meet Haben Blvd. Bustle and former Commissioner Donna Hayes made a push this summer to finally complete the extension under the guise of making the property attractive to potential hotel developers.
Extending 7th Street West would come in at about another $2 million, which the city made clear they not only didn't have, but wouldn't be interested in investing in an otherwise unnecessary extension even if they did – especially since there was never anything more than hearsay from Hayes in terms of evidence that developers were interested in the swampy plot of land, especially since a “hotel suitable” plot was for sale just down the street in front of Riviera Dunes for less than half a million bucks, without the need of a couple million more in roadways. The ordeal left many suspicious that the real motivation was to close the books on the embarrassing reminder, which continues to flash yellow all these years later.
There seemed to be some suspicions of alternative motives with the bridge as well. There was over $5.2 million in preparation hanging in the wings, ready to push the much-needed bridge renovations to the Top Priority List. That means the Project Development and Environmental (PD&E) study was the next step to what could still be years away from a solution to the troubled bridge. Yet there wasn't any discussion among the 14 MPO board members representing multiple governments, despite the fact that the two representatives of cities impacted by the bridge – Bryant and Bradenton City Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey – were voicing strong concerns. So the board voted to take the PD&E off the list and substitute it with a noneffective Feasibility Study (FS), which means that if a bridge solution is ever to come about, all of the previous work done will have to be revisited – and so will the costs.
Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac said, "I attended the 301 corridor charrette, and nothing really happened." Well I attended too, and I thought a lot happened. For hours, the more than 25 professionals worked to surmise the specific details needed to make such comprehensive decisions. In its current condition, the bridge is dangerous and will only become more so. If there is a problem that requires emergency services for someone north of the river and an accident occurs on the narrow, no-pass lane bridge, it could even prove fatal. When the DeSoto bridge has a problem, the Green Bridge (the only other bridge connecting Palmetto to Bradenton) comes to a halt. At that point, it may be quicker to take the injured to a St. Petersburg hospital, resulting in further consequences.
This isn't the first time the county has snubbed Mayor Bryant. It was just this past summer that the Mayor presented the BOCC with an $800,000 check to kick-start a North River Little League field solution proposed by the county, only to be told thanks, but no thanks. There, the county's lack of action on a property deal they orchestrated put Palmetto's responsibility to its young ball players, who'd been without fields for three years, into an even more embarrassing situation. When City of Palmetto Commissioners voted to remedy the issue by presenting them with the check, the Mayor was excused and asked to take the check with her.
Mayor Bryant and the Palmetto City Commission sent a letter to the BOCC recently reaffirming their ardent opposition to the renaming of the county's civic center, while also voicing their disappointment in what they see as an overall slight in their footnote mention on the CVB website, which lumps them in with several other out-of-county communities that are an easy drive away (click here to read letter). Judging from Mayor Bryant's reaction at the MPO meeting, another will likely follow. Still, it remains to be seen whether the BOCC is listening.
John Rehill covers Manatee County Government for The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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