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Resident outcry stalls utility tax
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BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Solid opposition from a group of residents has caused the city commission to put off adoption of a 10 percent utility tax.

The tax was part of a proposed ordinance presented by City Attorney Thomas Trask at the commission’s June 9 workshop. Also included was a section that would have repealed an ordinance passed in 1992 that required a referendum vote before such a tax could take effect.

The utility tax had been discussed at last month’s commission workshop. A budget proposal presented then assumed revenue from the tax in calculating the amounts needed to meet the city’s operating and project needs for the coming year.

Without a utility tax, the revenue stream would be insufficient, said Finance Officer Andrew Tess at that session. With it, the city “would have adequate funding and a little left for reserves.”

Most Pinellas County municipalities have some type of tax on utilities. A vote on adopting the tax, which added gas and water to the original plan for an electricity tax, had been planned for next week’s regular commission meeting. But the outcry from residents, who packed the meeting room at city hall to voice their concerns, caused the commissioners to delay any action for now.

The topic will be discussed further at next month’s workshop, where the commission hopes to have answers for some of the questions posed by the residents.

Dave Fynan questioned Attorney Trask’s assertion that the repeal of the referendum vote requirement was needed because an act of the state Legislature said “that can’t exist.” Fynan said the act referred to was passed in 1972, some 20 years before the commission passed the code section requiring a referendum.

“Why did we pass such a law, with legal approval, if it was not allowed?” Fynan asked.

George Lawton said that unincorporated areas of Pinellas County, which have similar services to Belleair Bluffs, currently pay about 5 percent lower municipal taxes. With the addition of a utility tax, that would jump to a 12 percent difference, he said. Further, Largo residents, who have their own fire, police and library pay only $1 a year more on the average in taxes than Bluffs citizens, Lawton said

Belleair Bluffs’ millage (tax) rate is already the fourth highest in the county, Barbara Nyberg pointed out.

“A lot of our residents live on a fixed income. The money (that would be taken by the tax) is what they buy food with,” she said.

The $40 a month the utility tax would cost the average resident is “a lot of money for people on a fixed income,” said Wanda Rusinowski.

Will Miller said the commissioners were elected “to properly manage our money.” Taxable property values went up 15 percent last year and the city took in an extra quarter of a million dollars.

“Why, when things are looking pretty good, do you all of a sudden need a lot more money,” said Miller. “Many of us don’t have the ability to increase our income.”

The ordinance authorizes a utility tax of up to 10 percent. Joanne Reinhart criticized the city for “going the full 10 percent, the whole ball of wax.”

Darlene Kavanagh said city staff members “make far more than the rest of us.” She wanted to know what the city is doing to cut costs.

City Clerk Debra Sullivan said the city needs the $200,000 or so generated by a utility tax to help pay for expensive ongoing capital improvement projects needed to fix roads and drainage problems. The city gets matching funds for such projects, but Belleair Bluffs has to come up with its share of the funding.

“We’re not doing this to break people’s banks,” she said.

“This is Belleair Bluffs, a very lovely area,” Sullivan said. “We don’t have that many people on fixed incomes.”

Sullivan said the city’s millage rate could possibly be reduced if property values continue to rise.

Commissioner Joseph Barkley said the commission has a duty to take care of the city. “We can’t take care of the city when we do not have the money,” he said.

But Commissioner Suzy Sofer said she is not for the tax. Sofer criticized “going for everything” in proposing the maximum 10 percent rate and adding gas and water to the original idea of taxing electricity.

“Ten percent across the board. That’s asking a lot from your residents,” she said.

The city is “jumping too far into deep water” by imposing a 10 percent utility tax right now, said Commissioner Jack Nazario.

While conceding an additional source of revenue is needed to finance the capital improvement projects, he said the commission should take more time to consider what to do. He suggested the tax could be looked at as an additional revenue source “and be adjusted as needed.”

Mayor Chris Arbutine thanked the residents for “asking a lot of good, serious questions” while insisting “we are not trying to do something underhanded.”

“We heard the (residents’) outcry,” Arbutine said.

The mayor said he also wants answers to the questions posed, such as “if it was not legal to pass a referendum (requirement) in 1992, why did we pass it?”

“I invite everybody back here (to next month’s workshop meeting),” Arbutine told the residents, adding, “We need your input.”

Bridge bait shop coming soon

A long-planned new bait shop at the Belleair Beach Causeway Bridge is due to be completed by the end of summer, said Public Works Director Robert David, who recently met with county officials on the project.

David said in a later comment that the bait shop would be “really nice” with balconies overlooking the water on the east and west sides, and a wheelchair lift.
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