BELLEAIR BLUFFS – A new fire station on city-owned property near Belleair Blufs City Hall seemed a near certainty after the Largo fire department chose the site last year. Now, terms of a proposed agreement on the station has put its location in doubt.
Bluffs Mayor Chris Arbutine announced at the May 13 City Commission meeting that Largo now wants a three-party agreement on the station that would include Largo, Belleair Bluffs and Belleair.
Arbutine said Belleair Bluffs wants no part of an agreement that would include Belleair, fearing a replay of the Belleair pullout that caused the disbanding of the Belleair Bluffs fire department four years ago. That move proved to be an especially costly one for the city, resulting in a recent payment of $1.7 million in pension benefits to its former firefighters, among other expenses.
Any agreement Largo would make with Belleair over the fire station would have to be a separate one from the Bluffs, Arbutine said. The currently proposed agreement calls for Largo to pay for the station up front, but Belleair Bluffs would have to reimburse Largo a share of that cost if they or Belleair withdrew from Largo’s services.
“We don’t want Belleair to pull out at some time in the future, and we end up paying two-thirds of the cost of the station,” he said.
Barring a favorable arrangement, Arbutine said Belleair Bluffs would just as soon let the station be built elsewhere and just contract for fire services. Belleair apparently wants a separate agreement with Largo also, Arbutine said. There has been talk of possibly putting a fire station along with a town hall on the Belleview Biltmore golf course property recently acquired by the town, he indicated.
Arbutine said he made Belleair Bluffs’ position on the matter clear when the three-party agreement was proposed at a recent meeting held with Largo officials.
“I told them, ‘Why would Belleair Bluffs want to have a fire station built and then have Belleair pull the rug out and we are responsible for (the majority of) the cost,’” Arbutine said.
Despite disagreement over the fire station agreement, Arbutine said “there are rays of hope the station gets built in Belleair Bluffs.”
Largo has the money in reserve and is “chomping at the bit” to build the station, Arbutine said. Also, the county has agreed to put up about 28 percent of the station’s cost and is now saying they will pick up 28 percent of the land costs also. That would be a reimbursement of sorts to Belleair Bluffs as the city has already paid for the property.
Arbutine said any agreement on the fire station between Largo and Belleair Bluffs “must specify that the only way we are on the hook for the station is if we back out. If Belleair pulls out, we are not responsible.” He added, “Largo and Belleair can figure out their own agreement.”
If an agreement cannot be worked out, Arbutine stressed the city does not mind buying fire services and having a station located elsewhere. “We don’t mind just being a customer,” he said.
Belleair Town Manager Micah Maxwell said May 14 that there had been no discussion in Belleair of building either a fire station or town hall on the golf course property.
“We’re actually going out for a lease to continue operating the golf course,” he said.
Other commission members agreed with Arbutine’s stance on the fire station.
Commissioner Joseph Barkley said Belleair Bluffs and Belleair should not be part of the same fire suppression services agreement.
“They want their agreement. We want ours,” he said. “That way, we will be protected if (Belleair) goes to Clearwater (for fire services in the future).”
“I can see history repeating itself,” Commissioner Suzy Sofer put in. “We don’t want to build a fire station and then pay over a million dollars (if Belleair pulls out).”
Control of water level snags Dolphin Pond accord
The ongoing controversy over the dredging of two ponds in the city’s Dolphin Drive neighborhood continues to defy resolution. The ponds, which are used for floodwater control by the city, have not been dredged in over 15 years.
Disagreements between the city and residents bordering the ponds over a number of issues have held up their cleaning out for months. The latest meeting between city officials and residents “went nowhere,” Public Works Director Robert David reported.
“We’re not even close (to an agreement),” he said, despite numerous attempts at settlement. While permanent easements have been the big issue holding up an agreement thus far, control of the water level has now surfaced as a major point of contention.
The city wants the water level as low as possible so the ponds can accommodate floodwaters during a storm. The residents want a higher level that gives the ponds a more attractive appearance.
Right now the ponds are at their lowest level ever, said resident spokesperson Jeff Washburn. “We’re looking at muck,” he told the commission.
The residents insist any agreement on the ponds give them control of the water level. The city is also demanding that right.
Washburn summed up the dilemma; “The city wants the ponds’ level as low as it can be, so they can take on the flooding. We live on the ponds. We want a reasonable level.”
City Attorney Thomas Trask was firm on the issue.
“If we reach an agreement, we (the city) will have the responsibility to maintain and control the (water) flow,” he said.
David said, “The city will not give the residents control of the level of the ponds. That’s not going to happen.”
The city will now put together an agreement it considers acceptable to present to the residents. Arbutine and David both expressed little hope of reaching a solution. Arbutine said, “I have sat on numerous boards and have been involved in million dollar projects. I have never seen anything so disjointed. We don’t really know what we’re trying to do and don’t know what anybody wants to spend.”
David agreed. “This is more convoluted than million dollar projects,” he said. “There is no common ground.”
The total cost of the dredging project has now escalated to $150,000, according to David.
Trask questioned whether the city should abandon the project altogether. “Do you still want to go down this path?” he asked, adding, “You have no legal obligation to do so.”
Resident representative Washburn in a comment made following the meeting expressed the lone note of optimism about reaching a settlement.
“I don’t think we’re that far apart (on an agreement),” he said.