You Paid For It: A hole in the water Florida taxpayers pay for over and over

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Florida taxpayers are on their way to spending $1.4 million set aside by lawmakers last year to remove sunken, half-sunken, and abandoned vessels from state waterways. If history is any measure they’ll do it again this year. The lack of personal responsibility among boat owners has its price – and You Paid for It.

In some cases, private boat owners simply walk away from their obligation to properly dispose of decaying pleasure boats. In many cases, they deliberately sink them. In a lot of cases, they simply don’t have the money to deal with them.

“They have no means of removing them, they’re indigent,” said FWC Derelict Vessel pre-program Manager Phil Horning. “The other criminal is hurricanes “

The FWC says taxpayers paid to remove 160 derelict vessels since the Florida Legislature approved $1.4 million for that purpose last year. About $300,000 remains in that state fund. Horning hopes lawmakers will approve a similar amount this year to help turn the tide of this never-ending problem.

“This used to be a finger-pointing exercise,” Horning said.

But now, many counties and cities have their own active programs to remove junk boats that create hazards to navigation and pollute waterways with oil, sewage and other toxic chemicals.

Pasco County is now dealing with a 39-foot wooden cabin cruiser that is half-sunk in the Anclote River and leaking diesel fuel. There is no apparent owner for that boat, named “Bootlegger,” and no one is stepping forward to accept responsibility. The boat is federally documented, but those ownership records expired in 2004.

Bootlegger is one of nine derelict vessels currently clogging waterways in Pasco County, and one of the 487 active cases listed in statewide FWC records. The FWC maintains an interactive map that shows the location of many of those boats, including photos and other information.

In St. Petersburg there are currently 8 to 12 derelict vessels under watch by St. Pete Police marine patrol officers Michael Robertson and Chris Dort.

“The hardest part is determining ownership. A lot of times these vessels can change owners several times even after they’ve sunk,” said Robertson.

Marine patrol officers sometimes use the threat of prosecution and fines ranging up to $500 to force owners to remove the boats, but often have to resort to taxpayer funds to hire salvage companies if they can’t tow them away without outside help. In Pinellas, the salvage costs can amount to as much as $327 per linear foot for abandoned vessels over 60 feet in length. Pinellas County removed 19 vessels in 2016 at a cost of $108,588. One vessel alone cost $11,138 to remove.

When Florida counties do get stuck with the bill they draw from vessel registration fees paid by boaters totaling about $15 million a year to pay for salvage and removal of abandoned vessels – money that is also supposed to pay for aids to navigation and other infrastructure costs related to boating.

FWC and local law enforcement agencies insist they do everything they can to hold private boat owners accountable, but often, taxpayers end up with the bill. And there’s often not enough money to pay for it

“They (marine officers) were complaining last week there’s not enough money to go around,” said Pasco Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Melanie Snow.

Whether there’s money or not, the problem never goes away.

“You get rid of one and two more show up,” Robertson said.

Tonight at 6, see for yourself what marine officers have to deal with in our You Paid for It report on News Channel 8.

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