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Belleair Bee
Indian Rocks Beach sells sewer system
City Commission approves $2 million deal with Pinellas County
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Photo by BRIAN GOFF
Three dozen people show up at Indian Rocks Beach City Hall to have their say on the proposed sale of the city’s sewer system to the county.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – City commissioners unanimously agreed to sell Indian Rocks Beach's sewer system to Pinellas County for just under $2 million.

They approved the sale following a special meeting on Aug. 12 to discuss the issue with residents. Three dozen of them showed up to have their say and not all were for the deal.

Among those against the proposal was resident Amber Burton.

“If the system as we have it now is funding itself and is a revenue stream for the city, why are we selling it?” she asked. “Why are we getting rid of it?”

Phil Wrobel had a similar comment.

“For years we heard how former Public Works Director Dean Scharmen kept the system in perfect condition and how proud he was,” he said. “If it is so good why are we selling it?”

Resident Steve Small wondered why the city wanted to lose something it owns.

“I’m generally in favor of local control,” he said. “If we give it to the county we’ll never have another meeting like this where we can set our own rates.”

Others felt differently. Resident Pat Munieo liked the idea.

“This is a good proposal,” she said. “We’ve looked at doing this in the past and it is worth it; we should let the county take over.”

Don House agreed but had a word of caution about what the commission should do with the money it receives.

“It is a good idea to get rid of it,” he said. “But once the money is in our pocket, look out. We should put that money in a ‘what if’ fund. Right now we can fund what we need, but when the big one hits, that’s when we’ll need it.”

House continued with his advice.

“If they, the county, are crazy enough to write us a check, we should take their check and cash it. Then bank it, don’t spend it.”

After the residents had their say commissioners weighed in on the subject and it was quickly apparent what was going to happen as one after the other spoke in favor of the deal.

“I feel comfortable with it; I think it is a good thing,” said Commissioner Cookie Kennedy.

“In general I believe local control is good,” said Mayor R.B. Johnson. “We’ve been thinking about this for a long time and we think this is the best all round solution. Maintenance is the issue. The birds are all coming home to roost on the maintenance issue.”

“Time and the economy are right for us to do this,” said Commissioner Jim Labadie. “It is something that is hanging out there ready to drop on us.”

His last remark referred to comments by City Manager Gregg Mims, who urged the commission to approve the deal. He said the system could eventually cost the city dearly.

“If we keep it, I’ll be coming back in the fall looking for a rate increase for commercial customers,” he said. “Residential customers have been subsidizing the commercial customers all along.”

Mims said the system is aging and warned the commissioners that a major infrastructure problem would leave the city in a bad position.

“I’ll be coming back to you asking where we are going to get the money to pay for it,” he said.

Mims said a break in the line earlier this year cost the city $90,000 to fix and suggested more breaks are on the way. He recalled a comment Scharmen made to him back then about the possibility of selling the system to the County.

“He told me if we can get a dollar for it, we need to sell the thing,” he said.

Commissioner Terry Hamilton-Wollin remembered talking to Scharmen when she was first elected and asked him what issues were facing the city.

“That was in 2006 and he told me we needed to sell the sewer system. We didn’t do it back then; now we have another chance.”

The deal would see the county pay the city $2 million for the system. The county will hire the lone city employee who works full time in the sewer department so no jobs will be lost in the deal. The county also will invest an immediate $1.5 million to upgrade the system.

In addition the city gets to keep the $1.6 million sewer reserve fund, which is set aside for potential emergencies with the system. That means together with the purchase price, the city’s coffers will be $3.6 million richer.

With that money the city proposes to set aside $1 million to offset the loss of revenue from the sewer system for the next five years. The rest of the money will go toward infrastructure projects and capital improvement projects.

City officials also were quick to point out that residential sewer bills will go down and each resident will save $74.92 a year because of cheaper rates charged by the county.

Unanimous approval for the deal came later in the evening at the regular City Commission meeting. It was at that time Johnson noted that the city’s senior staff all recommended the deal go through.

“There is no negative all the way around on this thing,” he said.

No-shows receive different treatment

When you want something from City Hall, it might be wise to show up to make your case. At the city’s regular commission meeting on Aug. 12, not one but two businesses didn’t send representatives to the meeting, even though what they wanted may have been crucial to the continuing operation of their businesses.

The owners of the two establishments who were absent may learn that it pays to be nice if you want something in Indian Rocks Beach.

First up was a request for the new owners of 18 On the Rocks, a bar at 2405 Gulf Blvd. The business was formally Cuso’s, which was repeatedly in hot water with the city for violating the noise and parking ordinances. The request was to receive the city’s blessing to sell alcohol. Yet no one showed up to answer commissioners’ questions.

“I am astounded that no one is here,” remarked Commissioner Terry Hamilton-Wollin. “The survival of their business is at stake here.”

Hamilton-Wollin said she has received a number of complaints about the way the new business is being operated with loud music and cars parked everywhere.

“I want to be able to let them know that it is not acceptable and I want them to know that if we give them the license, we can just as quickly take it back if they don’t conform to our laws,” she said.

Commissioner Jim Labadie was just as surprised that no one showed up.

“I view this as a privilege, not a right,” he said. “I received a lot of complaints about the parking and limited complaints about the noise. If I say yes to this I’d be condoning bad behavior.”

Commissioners were clearly upset that no one was available to talk about the issue but were less clear on what to do about it. Commissioner Phil Hanna said he wasn’t interested in impeding the company’s business but agreed there should have been someone present to hear the Commissioners concerns.

City Attorney Jay Daigneault said if the commissioners denied the license then the company would have to stop selling alcohol immediately. He agreed with a suggestion from Commissioner Cookie Kennedy that the matter could be put off until the owners, Douglas Thompson and Patrick Adani, could be on hand.

Another option would have been to grant the license but instruct City Manager Gregg Mims to keep an eye on the place and report back in six months with an eye to rescinding the license if there were too many violations.

Ultimately, the commissioners voted unanimously to table the matter until the Sept. 3 meeting in the hopes that the owners will show up. The company can continue to operate on the license that had been granted to Cuso’s.

Hamilton-Wollin had the last word.

“They haven’t proven themselves to be stellar citizens so far,” she said.

The other company looking for a similar license yet had no one at the meeting was PJ’s Oyster Bar. The company, which has operated for years at 500 First St., has moved across the street to 415 Second St. The move means a new license is required.

Being good neighbors got them a pass for their absence.

“PJ’s, they have a good reputation and there have been no complaints about them at all,” said Mayor R.B. Johnson. “Although it would be nice if they were here.”

Without further discussion the commission unanimously granted PJ’s the new license it needs to operate.

Special visitor

The meeting had an unexpected, but special visitor. Former City Manager Chuck Coward showed up, one year after his retirement, to congratulate the city on what it has accomplished since he left.

“It was just a year ago you looked at me and said how are we going to survive without you,” he said. “I don’t say that to be self-serving; I say that to tell you that you have gotten along just fine, you have not only survived but you have thrived.”

Coward listed off a number of things that he said led to his comments.

“First of all you hired a city manager who has fitted into this community seamlessly,” he said. “The Cove at IRB, the new housing development is coming along and looks good. The new facade on City Hall has changed the whole character of the place. You got the grant for the improvements to the Narrows Business District, the Holiday Inn is finally expanding and you have hired a new city attorney.

“I watch Indian Rocks Beach with pride and pleasure and I thank you for allowing me to finish my career in city government. The city looks terrific.”

With that Coward received a round of applause from those in attendance.

Since his retirement as city manager in Indian Rocks Beach, Coward has been working with the city of Gulfport as it transitions to a city manager form of government. He’s also been volunteering with the Pinellas Education Foundation, helping fifth to eighth graders learn about finances.
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