BELLEAIR BLUFFS – In a move to satisfy residents and opposed commission members, the City Commission chose to reduce a proposed utilities tax by 50 percent and leave the millage rate unchanged.
The action came at the commission’s July 21 regular meeting, where residents again showed up to oppose the utility tax. Unlike last week’s workshop meeting, where they were not allowed to speak on the issue, the residents and business owners present were permitted to freely give their views and even were allowed to exceed the three-minute comment limit.
The tentative proposal coming out of the workshop meeting was to impose a 10 percent utility tax on electricity and lighten the impact by reducing the property tax millage rate from 5.35 to 5.06 mills, the rollback rate.
Cutting the utility tax proposed from 10 percent to 5 percent was a solution offered by Commissioner Suzy Sofer. She had spoken passionately of her opposition to the 10 percent tax, citing residents and business owners who were struggling with their expenses. Imposing an additional tax at that rate adds an extra burden and is unfair, she said.
Sofer said the city should be looking at its operating expenses, including items such as the purchase of special soap products for the restrooms, specialized office furniture “that is currently not even being used” and employee uniforms “right down to the socks.”
Her compromise solution included “no more than a 5 percent utility tax, no millage rate change, freezing all salaries, bonuses and raises for 36 months, and as
a sign of good faith from the commission, reducing commission salaries by a minimum of $100 a month.”
Mayor Chris Arbutine proposed the commission adopt the utility tax compromise along with leaving the millage rate unchanged. The actions somewhat offset each other, but the city will take in about $42,000 in extra income next year with the compromise instead of $90,000, City Clerk/Finance Director Debra Sullivan said following the meeting.
And, of course, residents and business owners will have a lower tax burden under the compromise plan.
Arbutine spoke after hearing Sofer’s comments and Commissioner Taylour Shimkus’s opposition to the utility tax. Shimkus criticized what she said was a lack of planning to deal with the city’s financial situation.
“For months I have asked for a workshop to come up with a plan,” she said.
Shimkus said the utility tax is a temporary fix.
“It will solve the problem for now, and it is not going to go away,” she said. “As long as the city has income coming in, it will continue.”
The city needs to take more time and do more planning before deciding on a solution to solve the financial problem, she said.
“I’m happy there is talk of a compromise, and it’s a step in the right direction, but we should have been dealing with this before tonight,” she said.
Commissioners Joseph Barkley and Jack Nazario continued to back the utility tax at 10 percent, although Nazario said he considered the 5 percent compromise “a good solution.”
Nazario said the city “needs another revenue stream” to provide money to do needed projects and provide services, and keep the city looking beautiful.
“I moved to Belleair Bluffs because I like the way it looks, and I want it to look even better in the future,” he said.
Nazario said the city “should not skimp on things” and the city employees should be even better paid.
“They haven’t had a raise for a while,” he said.
Barkley said the commission should go ahead and pass the full 10 percent utility tax along with a millage rate reduction as planned.
“We have a fiduciary duty to take care of the city, and we are doing what we were elected to do,” he said.
Arbutine said he favors the compromise 5 percent utility tax solution because he would like the commission to be unified on the issue. The commission needs to do something now, he said, because the budget needs to be set for next year and it is not balanced. There is not enough income coming into the city, he said.
Arbutine urged all the commissioners to accept the tax compromise because “I don’t want to see the town torn apart by this issue.”
Earlier comments made by the residents were similar to those expressed after the July 14 workshop, where they were not allowed to speak during the meeting. Most wanted expense cuts considered before more taxes and spoke of the hardships many people in the city are facing.
George Taninatz, owner of Roxy’s Frozen Yogurt, said a 10 percent utility tax would have “a huge negative impact on my business and many others.”
“How are you going to rein in spending?” asked former Commissioner Robert Russo.
Property owner David Gardella said expected rising property values will bring additional income into the city, making the proposed utility tax unnecessary.
“I don’t need one more item on my tax bill,” Gardella said.
The commission approved the tax compromise, authorizing a 5 percent utility tax on electricity and leaving the millage rate unchanged.
But Arbutine did not get the unanimous consent he had sought. Commissioner Suzy Sofer joined the mayor, Barkley and Nazario in favor of the plan. Shimkus voted “no.” She said later the commission did not take the time needed to study the finances and look at alternative options for meeting the city’s financial needs.
No action was taken on Sofer’s proposals to freeze all salaries, bonuses and raises for 36 months and reduce commission salaries. Arbutine promised to look at these and other options at a future budget meeting.
The utility tax ordinance will be on the agenda next month for a second reading before taking effect.