‘A MONUMENT’ — U.S. Army tugboat ST 479, also known as Tiger, made the journey across the Atlantic Ocean back to Central Florida near where it was built along Lake Beresford in DeLand during World War II. Dan Friend, the mastermind behind the plan to bring the tugboat from Europe back to Florida, hoped to secure ECHO funding for his plan to turn the tugboat into a living monument, but new guidelines struck a blow.

A solid majority of Volusia County voters renewed the ECHO program in the 2020 general election, but the program came under scrutiny at the May 16 County Council meeting, emerging largely unscathed.

ECHO is an acronym for a fund of special voter-approved property taxes collected to acquire, save or develop properties that are deemed environmental, cultural, historical or outdoor recreational in nature.

A plan to hire a consultant to help decide how to spend millions of ECHO dollars that will come in over the program’s remaining life span was criticized as a waste of money.

“They want to plan for the next 18 years,” County Chair Jeff Brower told his colleagues.

The County Council appoints a nine-member board to receive and screen applications for ECHO grants. The committee then makes recommendations to the County Council on prospective grantees and the amounts of money to be awarded for projects deemed eligible for one or more of four categories.

The County Council has the final word on deciding which projects are to be approved for ECHO funding and how much.

After more than an hour of spirited debate, the council acceded to the ECHO advisory board’s request to hire a consultant to aid in formulating long-range goals and plans for using the program’s future funds.

“We’re talking about more than $100 million, maybe $200 million,” Brower said, referring to the total ECHO funding over the 18 years remaining.

The estimated cost of hiring a consultant to work with the ECHO committee to develop a work plan ranged between $75,000 and $125,000.

Director of Resource Stewardship Dr. Brad Burbaugh said the figures came from conversations with ECHO committee members and Orange County officials who are studying how best to spend their quality-of-life dollars. Still, the figures caused heartburn for some members.

“I think it’s a waste of money,” Council Member David Santiago told his colleagues, reminding them the county may soon face difficult decisions on spending and taxation. “We have to look at every dollar we spend.”

“We’re coming up on a season of hard cuts,” Council Member Don Dempsey said.

“I don’t like the $75,000 or the $125,000, either,” Council Vice Chair Danny Robins said. “I would rather see a more frugal number.”

Robins wanted to lower the limit to $40,000, but his idea could not gain enough support.

How long would a consultant need to help devise a plan for spending ECHO dollars?

“I would say six months to a year,” Burbaugh said.

For those reluctant to spend money for an outsider’s look at ECHO, Brower said the county perhaps cannot afford to do without the expert review.

“The best way to waste taxpayers’ money is not to have a plan,” he told the critics.

The County Council ultimately voted 5-2 to hire a consultant to help develop and refine the Volusia ECHO program. Dempsey and Santiago dissented.

Tiger tugboat caught in crossfire

On another ECHO matter, the council voted to delete the acquisition of historic monuments. or artifacts as items eligible for ECHO grants.

That is a blow to the DeLand Historical Trust, whose leader, Dan Friend, has worked tirelessly for almost two years to save a rare U.S. Army tugboat built on Lake Beresford and used in World War II. Friend found the aging vessel, ST 479, in Stockholm, Sweden, and the owners, the Higgins, donated it to him. Friend spent more than $200,000 to put it aboard a merchant ship to bring it from Europe to Jacksonville.

Friend and close friends last fall towed the tugboat on the St. Johns River from Green Cove Springs to Palatka, where it now lies moored, awaiting the last leg of its journey home.

“The World War II tugboat is a monument,” Burbaugh said.

Burbaugh also noted the ECHO program has lacked acquisitions in two of its categories.

“We have a dearth of historic and environmental projects,” he said.

Friend noted the ST 479 is one of the very few of more than 500 Army tugboats that have survived the ravages of war, sea duty, and time and age.

“There’s one in a museum in Turkey, and it still has the original engine,” he said.

Brower lamented the decision to eliminate historic artifacts and items from ECHO funding. He was a lone voice on the County Council.

“The purpose was to preserve our history,” Brower said. “We don’t do a very good job of saving our history.”

Contacted later, Friend still hopes he can find money somewhere to finish the restoration of the tugboat and put it on permanent display as a World War II relic.

As well as bringing home the ST 479, also known as the Tiger, Friend and his supporters say more work is needed to save the vessel from decay and loss. Much of that work will include putting the boat on a dry dock and working from there.

“The whole point is to get the boat up out of the water, where we will be able to use spray and sandblasting to get out the rust,” Friend told The Beacon.

Friend said he cannot yet determine how much money may be needed to remove the rust and repaint and repair the Tiger for placement on a static display as a war monument.

“I am surprised there has not been any national attention to this story,” Friend added.


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