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Belleair Bluffs starts drainage project
Construction contract expected to be let by the end of the month
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BELLEAIR BLUFFS – A massive ongoing project to control drainage problems in Belleair Bluffs is set to begin again, following a months-long delay. The multimillion-dollar job had been held up by water quality studies by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The agency is funding 50 percent of the costs through grant money.

Engineering for the job is currently underway, and the construction contract should be let by the end of the month, Public Works Director Robert David announced at the City Commission’s Feb. 10 workshop. The project includes road resurfacing, replacement and curbing, along with stormwater drains and outfalls.

The project will eventually cover the whole city, but is being done in phases based on priority needs, due to its estimated $4 million overall costs.

The first phase of the project included Renatta Drive from Lentz Road to Bluff View Drive and parts of Palmer Road and Cortez Avenue. Phase II covered Los Altos Drive and a small portion of Bluff View between Renatta and Sunset.

The upcoming work will finish Cortez to Pinehurst Avenue and completely do Sunset Drive.

The latest phase is budgeted to cost $834,000, of which half will be picked up by the Swiftmud grant. Engineering of the project will run another $80,000.

The commission has authorized the engineering work to be done before the cooperative funding grant is approved. Project Engineer Bill Reedy of Advanced Engineering explained the project must be ready to proceed before the water management district will issue the grant. Approval is virtually certain, David said, as “we have never been denied one of these projects.”

Completion of this phase is expected to extend “beyond October,” David said.

The project’s goal is to put an end to flooding issues that have plagued portions of the city for years. David said at a previous meeting, “We would like to finish the entire city by 2015-2017.”

The city’s reserve funds are lower than normal now, due to the recent pension payout to the city’s former firefighters. David has said a lack of funds could delay planned future work on the drainage project.

Mehlenbacher Road closures end

The barricades are down, the electronic signs announcing road closures and detours are gone. Motorists can now drive Mehlenbacher Road in its entirety, David announced at the meeting. All that remains to be done are some minor curbing and sidewalk work. Then a visual inspection “walk through” of the job is expected to take place within a week.

At that point, the nine-month Mehlenbacher Road job will be officially declared complete.

But not for one property owner. Wanda Rusinowski’s ongoing problems with access to the property continue, she said.

A proposed solution to extend her driveway apron and make it a little wider “would make it easier to back out of her yard,” David said.

“That will not help whatsoever,” declared Rusinowski. She said it would still be impossible to get their RV out due to a high standing drainage outlet “that is 90 percent on our property.”

Mayor Chris Arbutine promised to talk with the city’s engineer about the problem, and give Rusinowski some options. The issue needs to be resolved, he said, telling Rusinowski, “When we do an improvement that is not an improvement for some people, that takes away property rights. It needs to be checked into.”

The engineer said a steel frame could possibly solve Rusinowski’s problem.

New fire station may be coming

On-again, off-again plans to build a new fire station on city owned property behind City Hall might be back on track.

Responding to a comment by Commissioner Jack Nazario that the current Bluffs station on Indian Rocks Road “is in rough shape, and I feel for the firemen who have to live there” and a report by David that an air conditioning unit is broken, Arbutine said, “We are 80 percent there on getting a new fire station.”

Arbutine said he expects further news on the subject after a meeting this week with Largo and Belleair city managers. “We don’t want to put any more money into the old station,” he said, indicating the outcome would likely be positive.

Fire settlement impacted city finances, audit shows

Belleair Bluffs is still in sound financial condition, but the reserves have shrunk to five months’ operating expenses, an audit of the city’s finances done by Wells, Houser & Schatzel, P.A., showed. That is the lowest point in years, auditor John Houser said, and could affect the city’s ability to operate if multiple needs arise at once, such as costs relating to a major storm.

The operating fund cushion had been eight months in the years proceeding, and 12 and 16 months in the prior years. It has been as high as 18 months operating expenses, Houser said.

“You are at your lowest point (in years),” he told the commission, adding the cause was the $1.6 million payment to former firefighters to close out the pension fund. A nearly $500,000 net decrease in the city’s general fund balance was due to the fire pension, Houser said.

Houser said the reserve funds are important, because “when you have an unexpected expenditure, that’s where you’re going to get the money to appropriate.”

Nazario said the city had budgeted the funds to meet the pension obligation, but does need to build the reserves back up.

“We want to get it closer to what it was,” he said.

Commissioner Joseph Barkley said economic conditions also affected the reserves. They will likely increase now that revenue is expected to rise as the economy improves, he said.

“(The reserves) were very high in the heyday of the marketplace,” Barkley said. “That’s where we’re heading,” he added.
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