BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Beginning this October, Belleair Bluffs residents and businesses will begin paying a 5 percent tax on their electricity use. The City Commission passed an ordinance creating the tax, while at the same time repealing a law that had required a referendum vote to do so.
The final action on the tax and referendum issue came at the Aug. 18 commission meeting. It concluded several months of discussion on what turned out to be a highly controversial topic. Residents and some business owners packed several meetings to protest the original utility tax proposal, which included a 10 percent tax on all utilities, combined with a millage rate reduction to soften the impact.
The protests caused Mayor Chris Arbutine to recommend cutting the tax from 10 percent to 5 percent, on the advice of Commissioner Suzy Sofer, and limiting it to electricity use only. The millage rate will be left at 5.35 mils.
The commission vote for the compromise tax was close. Mayor Chris Arbutine was in favor, along with Commissioners Joseph Barkley and Jack Nazario. Commissioners Taylour Shimkus and Suzy Sofer were opposed. Arbutine had previously said he wanted the vote to be unanimous, to show commission unity on the issue.
Sofer’s “no” vote was a surprise, as she had proposed cutting the utility tax in half as a compromise, and had voted in favor when the first vote on the issue was taken last month. In a comment following the meeting, Sofer acknowledged recommending the cut to 5 percent, but said she still did not want any utility tax.
“I told the residents I would not vote for any tax increase, and I will not,” she said at the meeting.
Sofer said while she is grateful the tax went from 10 percent to 5 percent and is “a little bit more livable,” she believes “it is unfortunate we have to go forward with this.”
Sofer added she hoped commission members would look for ways to cut costs, as she has suggested.
The compromise did appear to quiet resident opposition. Only two spoke at the meeting against the 5 percent tax.
Dave Fynan sharply criticized the commission for failing to plan their actions and seek long term goals, while costing the city millions of dollars with “bad decisions.” Mayor Arbutine later strongly refuted Fynan’s remarks.
Resident Will Miller said he was “profoundly disappointed” in the commission for passing the tax without a referendum vote and “without any advice or options.”
“The commission appears to believe taxes are the only way out of the dark hole you have dug,” Miller said.
He was also critical of the utility tax’s lack of an expiration date.
“I expected better,” he told the commission.
City Clerk/Finance Director Debra Sullivan said she had incorporated revenue for the tax into next year’s budget, which will show a $40,000 surplus for the year. She and Public Works Director Robert David have said the extra money generated is needed to help pay for future capital improvement projects in the city, most notably the city’s ongoing $12 million drainage and road reconstruction project.
That job is being partly financed by state Southwest Florida Water Management District grants, which require matching funds from the city.
David announced later in the meeting that the next phase of that project is ready to go. The commission approved the selection of Keystone Excavators as the contractor on the $787,400 job. Next up is working out the scheduling for the job to begin, he said. Once the schedule is set, the city will send letters to the affected residents on Cortez, Pinehurst and Sunset Drive.