BELLEAIR BLUFFS – The stalled drainage project in Belleair Bluffs is set to start again. A cooperative funding agreement between Belleair Bluffs and the Southwest Florida Water Management District covers 50 percent of the city’s costs on a massive drainage control and road improvement project.
The City Commission at their April 21 regular meeting approved the agreement for the next phase.
That job, which will cost more than $800,000, can now move forward. The project, which includes road replacement and resurfacing along with curbing, stormwater drains and outfalls, has been held up for months while the district conducted water quality studies.
The work has been proceeding in phases for several years, and will eventually cover the entire city. Its estimated total cost will run more than $4 million, half of which is being funded by the agency.
The upcoming phase will finish Cortez Avenue to Pinehurst Avenue, completely redo Sunset Drive, and do as much of Pinehurst as funding allows.
Now that the approvals are done, the city will proceed to go out for bids on the job and select a contractor, Public Works Director Robert David said following the meeting. Construction is scheduled to begin by Aug. 4, he said.
The project’s goal is to put an end to the flooding issues that have plagued a large portion of the city for years. Completed in earlier phases were Renatta Drive from Lentz Road to Bluff View Drive, parts of Palmer Road and Cortez Avenue, Los Altos Drive and a portion of Bluff View between Renatta and Sunset.
Commissioner Joseph Barkley said the drainage project is an important one for the city and he is pleased to
see it get restarted.
“This is an ongoing series of projects to improve our stormwater treatment and runoff issues throughout the city. We are working in a systematic way to enhance that throughout the city,” he said.
Sign code compliance delayed once again
Businesses are being given more time to comply with a city ordinance mandating the replacement of nonconforming signs. The law would ban most pole signs in favor of monument-type signs. Under the ordinance requirements, about 75 of the city’s businesses would have to change their signs, City Clerk Debra Sullivan estimated.
The nonconforming sign law originally had a 2008 deadline, but twice the commission has extended that. The reason was tough economic conditions, which city officials said made it difficult for business owners to pay the expense of changing their signs.
This time, the commission voted to push the deadline out to 2017, a two-year delay. Mayor Chris Arbutine said most of the city’s businesses, while still feeling the adverse effects of the economic downturn, are doing fairly well. “I don’t want to upset things by forcing them to make these changes right now,” he said.
Arbutine went on to question whether the mandated changes are needed at all.
“Why change to monument signs? Eliminating pole signs just doesn’t make sense to me,” Arbutine said.
He added, “People are already complaining they don’t have enough signage now.”
Barkley said he agreed with the extension. “We need to give as much time as possible (for business owners) to make these adjustments, if they are going to be required.”
Commissioner Suzy Sofer, a local business owner, voted against the ordinance extending the compliance time. Sofer said after the meeting that she voted no because she feels the nonconforming sign law needs to be redone, not just extended.
“If this goes through, it is going to hurt a lot of businesses,” Sofer said. “We need to clear up which signs need to be replaced.”
“The ordinance I approve will benefit our businesses and not hurt them,” she said.
Commissioner Jack Nazario pointed out that businesses, which repair, alter or replace their signs will have to meet the requirements of the nonconforming sign law.
Arbutine asked that the topic be put on the agenda for a future workshop.
Late repeal of insurance tax questioned
A vote to repeal a tax included in residents’ casualty insurance which benefitted the pension plans of the city’s former firefighters had one resident question why the action was taken so late.
Belleair Bluffs has not had a fire department since 2009, yet more than $130,000 has been collected since that time from the tax on residents’ hazard insurance policies, said Dave Fynan, a former pension board chairman. He said the city’s residents and businesses paid 1.85 percent of their insurance premium to the firefighters’ pension fund.
That money has been given to the Largo firefighters for their pension plan, Fynan said. Only 10 of the current 130 Largo firefighters were formerly with the Belleair Bluffs department, he said.
“Why did my money leave here and go to Largo,” Fynan asked. He said the city needs to pay attention to what is going on “and you aren’t doing it.”
Arbutine defended the tax’s continuation up to now, saying the city just last year completed negotiations over the firefighters’ pension payouts. Former Belleair Bluffs firefighters benefited from that money, and the residents have continued to benefit from the fire protection provided by the Largo fire department, he said.
Now that the pension settlement has been paid, a repeal of the tax makes sense, Arbutine said.
The decision to continue the tax until the pension negotiations were completed was a deliberate action on the part of the city, Sullivan added.
Fynan was not satisfied with the explanations.
“The money went to Largo when it should have stayed with the taxpayers of Belleair Bluffs,” he said.