BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Adoption of a controversial 10 percent tax on electric utilities is very likely to happen, based upon comments made by Belleair Bluffs Commission members at their July 14 workshop. The added tax will probably be combined with a .29 mill reduction in the ad valorem tax rate.
The millage rate reduction was offered by Mayor Chris Arbutine as a compromise with residents who had packed city hall to oppose the utility tax hike. The residents were not allowed to speak on the subject, with the mayor declaring the meeting had become “too emotional.” Several of his earlier comments had been jeered by the crowd.
Arbutine said citizens had “verbally abused” the commission when the utility tax topic had come up at last month’s meeting, and he did not want to see that repeated. He invited residents to submit their comments and suggestions in writing to city hall.
But the crowd was clearly in opposition to the tax, based upon the jeers that accompanied the commission’s discussion.
Arbutine told the residents that the decision needed to be made “on a non-emotional basis.” Commissioner Suzy Sofer said she disagreed with the mayor’s disallowing of public comment, and she invited the residents to talk with her after the meeting. Many did, and a number also gave their comments to the Bee correspondent.
In a telephone conversation later that evening, Sofer said a number of people were waiting in her driveway when she came home. These were people who had not been at the meeting, but had already heard about it, she said.
“There’s a lot of people upset about this (tax),” Sofer said. She added, “They had heard that the residents were not allowed to speak, and some were even more concerned about that than the tax.”
The commission had nearly an hour of discussion on the utility tax, most of it taken by Arbutine and City Clerk/Treasurer Debra Sullivan telling why it is needed.
Arbutine said the city has only enough funds to continue the massive, ongoing road reconstruction/drainage project through next year.
“We need this to continue our capital improvement projects,” he said. “We want to make sure the roads and sidewalks are safe and that the drainage project continues.”
Sullivan said the city’s $700,000 in matching grant funds are at stake, and Belleair Bluffs has to have its money available to qualify for matching money from Southwest Florida Water Management District.
In the past, rising property values brought in ad valorem tax income to pay for the capital projects, Arbutine said, adding, “We don’t have that luxury anymore.”
Public Works Director Robert David said after next year “we’re not going to have any money to fund anything.”
Arbutine challenged the commissioners to “not kick the can down the road and walk away from this any longer.”
“This is all about being a city leader, ensuring we have enough money to maintain the quality of life our city is all about,” he said. “We can’t do that by wishful thinking.”
The 10 percent utility tax being proposed is expected to bring in around $200,000 in new revenue to the city annually. Then, as reserves are built up, city officials have stated their intent to lower the millage rate.
Arbutine proposed what he said was a “good faith” compromise solution meant to appease the residents. He recommended combining the utility tax hike with an immediate reduction in the millage rate from 5.35 mills to 5.06. That is the “roll-back rate,” which would still bring the city the same amount of revenue as this year due to an expected rise in property values.
Commissioners Joe Barkley and Jack Nazario said they liked that idea, and their vote would provide the majority needed to pass it at the July 21 commission meeting. Commissioner Taylour Shimkus also appeared to be leaning toward the compromise solution.
Sofer said she needed to study the numbers. She said later the residents can be assured “I will do my homework on this.”
Judging from the residents’ comments following the meeting, adding the millage rate reduction to a 10 percent utility tax did little to lessen the opposition.
Eileen Fynan said a tax “stays on the books forever, while the millage rate can be raised every year.”
George Lawton said the city needs to cut expenses.
“If we can take $200,000 a year out of the budget, wouldn’t that accomplish the same thing (as the tax)?” he said.
Darlene Kavanagh also said the city needs to reduce costs.
“Where are cuts going to be made?” she asked.
Several residents said the city already charges “franchise fees” on services such as water, electricity and gas, which are seldom mentioned.
“Where is that money? Who gets that?” asked former Commissioner Robert Russo.
Henrie Descheemaeker said people “are still upset about what they view as a mistake in the deal with paying the former firefighters’ pensions. We paid $600,000 more than needed to the firefighters. Look at the difference that would have made in our finances,” Descheemaeker said.
Barbara Nyberg thanked Sofer for meeting with the residents following the meeting. “You were the only one that wanted to talk to us,” she said.