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Belleair Bluffs utility tax looms
Commission can pass measure without a referendum, city attorney says
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BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Some form of tax on utilities is looking more and more likely for Belleair Bluffs residents and businesses.

A new way of keeping track of the city’s funds and reserves presented at the May 12 commission workshop assumed a utility tax in calculating the amounts needed to meet operating and project needs. Finance officer Andy Tess presented data that showed the city could not meet future funding obligations without income from such a tax.

Without the tax, the revenue stream would be insufficient, Tess said. With it, the city “would have adequate funding and a little left for reserves,” he said.

A past hurdle for imposing a tax on residents and businesses has been a requirement that a referendum be held. That is no longer the case, based upon a law passed last year by the state Legislature, City Attorney Thomas Trask said. The utility tax recommended by city staff, most likely on electricity use, can be accomplished through an ordinance passed by the city commission, he said.

Trask said the commission has the ability to remove a section requiring a vote from the city code.

“You don’t have to go to the people for a referendum. State law allows you to repeal that,” Trask said.

Electrical utility taxes up to 10 percent are common in Pinellas County. A survey by Tess of 18 municipalities showed only Belleair, Indian Rocks Beach, North Redington Beach and Redington Beach in addition to Belleair Bluffs, do not have such a tax. Among the cities not included in the survey were St. Petersburg, Palm Harbor, Pinellas Park and Redington Shores.

Tess’s analysis of the city’s finances went out through 2018. It assumed no growth in property tax revenues, which have declined in recent years and are starting to show only modest growth.

Big-ticket expenses include capital improvement projects, especially the ongoing massive drainage and road resurfacing effort, which is being jointly funded by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Such projects “are truly the basis for what this city is all about,” said City Clerk/Finance Director Debra Sullivan.

“We need drainage, road improvements and the like,” she told the commission.

Property tax revenues have been declining, Commissioner Joseph Barkley pointed out. As vice mayor, Barkley chaired the meeting in the absence of Mayor Chris Arbutine. Barkley said a utility tax would be a new source of revenue “and give us some flexibility as to revenue needed to fund the city.”

Though the commission can apparently now impose a utility tax without voter approval, commission members appeared to be reluctant to do so without further study.

Commissioner Suzy Sofer said a big chunk of the utility tax revenue would be coming from the commercial sector. The tax, in addition to proposed sign regulations, could signal that the city is no longer business-friendly, she said. Sofer owns Cody’s restaurant on West Bay Drive.

The city needs to have a retreat or series of workshops to thoroughly study the financial situation and prioritize the various projects, said Commissioner Taylour Shimkus. Commissioner Jack Nazario agreed.

Sullivan said the city “is up against some hurdles” in meeting its financial obligations, even short term. In addition to the expensive ongoing projects, she said the Sheriff’s Office and fire department have rate increases this coming year.

“We have to pay their bills,” she said.

Belleair Bluffs currently has the fifth highest millage (tax) rate in the county. Though that was not mentioned at the meeting, Tess said the additional revenue generated by a utility tax could allow the city to look at lowering the millage rate at some point.

New crosswalk could improve pedestrian safety

Help could be on the way for pedestrians attempting to cross busy Indian Rocks Road, said Commissioner Shimkus.

Shimkus said she had met with county officials about getting a crosswalk installed near Indian Rocks Road and Bay Way Avenue, or a little further north. Also, Shimkus wants pedestrian signal devices installed at the traffic light at Mehlenbacher and Indian Rocks Road.

Pedestrian safety in the area is a big concern, Shimkus said.

“There is no safe way to cross Indian Rocks Road,” she said. “You cannot cross anywhere.”

Shimkus said she will be having another meeting with the county on the subject. The crosswalk’s installation will depend upon funding, she said. The money would need to come from the county because Indian Rocks Road is a county road.

“The crosswalk is important, and I want people to know we are working on it,” she said.

Belleair Bluffs history book touted

“Belleair Bluffs from the Beginning,” a recently released book that tells the city’s story in words and pictures, has been recognized by a leading regional magazine, Sullivan said. The book was named a “Best Bet” by Tampa Bay Magazine in its widely read Best of Tampa Bay issue.

The write-up says the book “tells about the transformation of an irregularly-shaped, approximately one-half square mile of mid-Pinellas County orange groves on the Intracoastal Waterway into a flourishing town. Today, Belleair Bluffs, founded in 1963, is known for its premier residential neighborhoods, as well as its fine shopping and dining destination.”

The book is filled with historic photos and views of the area.

The book has also drawn the attention of the American City and County Magazine, a national publication, who plan to include it in a story on local history books, Sullivan added.

Copies of the book are available for $10 at city hall.
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