Editor: Inasmuch as Mayor Arbutine decided to disallow citizen comment and questions regarding his proposed utility tax at the July 14 workshop session, I submit the following observations and suggestions:
Mayor Arbutine’s unilateral decision to prohibit citizen input was decided because, as he explained, the comments and questions received at the June workshop were addressed at the outset of the Monday’s meeting. However, on Monday, Mayor Arbutine introduced an entirely new proposal. One, which only he was privy to, and one which he and he alone permitted to be discussed.
While the mayor tried to explain that Ordinance 137-1 has been “illegal” since 1973, he could not explain why it has remained in the code and, prior to 1992, the charter mandated the referendum requirement. Also, he did not address the fact that the city has in the past held at least one referendum on a utility tax as required by the Ordinance.
Neither the mayor nor the city attorney is in a position to decide that the ordinance is “illegal.” Any question as to the legality of an Ordinance 137-1 can be resolved only through the appropriate legal proceeding.
Proposed: That the city seeks an opinion by a court of competent jurisdiction as to whether or not the Ordinance 137-1 is legal. This step would remove all doubt and possibly prevent the expenditure of taxpayer funds by the city to defend a lawsuit brought against it by the residents should the city proceed with its plan to strike the ordinance and impose a utility tax on the residents and businesses in Belleair Bluffs.
Commissioners came prepared to discuss the proposed ordinance July 14 only to be blindsided by a new proposal: lowering ad valorem taxes, taxing only electricity and setting the utility tax rate at the maximum 10 percent.
Proposed: That the commission defer further action on Mayor Arbutine’s proposal for at least one month to allow the commission and public to review and comment on the proposed ordinance.
The statutory language that authorizes a utility tax allows the tax rate to be set at any level as long as it does not exceed 10 percent The same law allows a municipality to exempt up the first 500-kilowatt hours of electricity use per month. The exemption applies only to residential customers.
Proposed: That the commission considers exempting all or part of the first 500-kilowatt hours of monthly electricity usage for residential customers in the city.
The mayor’s plan anticipates that the utility tax will generate about $195,000 per year. The projection does not include any analysis about how much additional revenue would be received if and when Duke Energy increases it rates for residential and business customers.
Proposed: That the ordinance includes language that shall require the roll back of the 10 percent rate any time the revenue exceeds 115 percent of the amount collected in the first 12 months of utility taxes received by the city.
Under the leadership of Mayor Arbutine, this city’s elected officials have ineffectively terminated a fire chief, ill-advisedly tried to exert its will about how the city’s former firefighters would receive their pensions and disastrously litigated the mandate of the Department of Management Services. These reckless actions have siphoned nearly $2 million from the taxpayers of Belleair Bluffs.
You have an opportunity to take a step back and engage in thoughtful, deliberate analysis of the city’s finances and craft solutions to meet its needs. The question is, are you willing to do so or will you once again risk public funds to defend a hasty decision?
I leave you with the well-reasoned comment of Judge Thomas P. Crapps in, City of Belleair Bluffs vs. Department of Management Services and Board of Trustees of the City of Belleair Bluffs Firefighters’ Pension Trust Fund:
“… Certainly, the law does not prohibit the parties from reaching an agreement that benefits both of them.”