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Belleair’s water system spurs debate
Commission mulls over several options to address plant problems
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Belleair’s Winston Park, which is now a staging area for construction equipment, is due for an upgrade this fall.
BELLEAIR – With the quality of Belleair’s water slowly deteriorating, commissioners are going to have to decide soon what to do about it and the future of the town owned water system could be at stake.

Several weeks ago commissioners were told about the water quality and the fact that their system is unable to correct the situation. On Aug. 20, commissioners learned that the life of the system has 10 years left at best.

“The plant has treated us well in the past,” said Dave Brown, director of Water Utilities. “Regulations have gotten more stringent and the plant just can’t keep up with the regulations.”

Commissioners were presented with a number of options to address the problem: upgrade to a full reverse osmosis system, go to a phased-in reverse osmosis system, supplement the town’s water supply by buying outside water or sell the system to either Clearwater or Pinellas County and buy water from an outside source.

Reverse osmosis is a process which removes impurities from the water and is likely the best option, but it is also the most expensive. Commissioners were told it would cost in the millions. The phased-in plan was next and it sparked the most discussion because little was known about the cost of that plan and in order to find out commissioners would have to commit to a $100,000 study, something that was greeted with reluctance by several commissioners.

Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto said he wasn’t in a position to make a decision without more information, but he indicated that he didn’t want to spend $100,000 to find out. Commissioner Michael Wilkinson agreed.

“I’m all for home rule but I’m hesitant to spend $100,000 to help me decide,” he said.

Finance Board Chairman Tom Olson told the commission that it boiled down to whether or not they wanted to keep control of the water system.

“But at what price Tom, at what price?” asked Mayor Gary Katica.

“That’s up to you,” replied Olson. “That is what you have to figure out. How much is local control worth to you?”

Commissioner Stephen Fowler was clear in his opinion.

“I don’t like the idea of someone else providing water for my home,” he said. “I want to be able to call someone when I have a problem with my water. It is an enterprise fund, which means it must pay for itself so whatever we decide the users will pay, our taxes should not be affected. I’m inclined to keep our system, and move ahead with the study to find out the cost.”

It was evident from comments made by residents at the meeting that the issue could be a divisive one for the town.

Resident Dan Hartshorne was adamant in his belief that the water system should be sold.

“We can’t get caught in the weeds on this one,” he said. “We don’t need a study. Sell the plant. Every day you delay the water quality goes down. We have the Police Department and we want that. We have the rec department and we want that. We can’t reach for everything. The idea that we are going to get filthy water is nonsense. Water is heavily regulated from the federal government on down.”

Resident Lucija Vaicaitis had the opposing view.

“This is upsetting; water is a resource,” she said. “We can live without food longer than we can live without water. Let us do what should be a priority. Once you sell it you lose total control. How can we even consider giving it up? We are blessed to have it. Selling is too easy a solution.”

Mayor Gary Katica wondered if the time has come to sell the system.

“Several cities in this country are going bankrupt because of projects that were too big for them to handle,” he said. “I recall several years ago when we sold our sewage treatment plant to the county and since then they have spent millions on the system.”

Katica was also reluctant to have the study into the system done.

“If it turns out the study shows that our system is bad then that will surely affect our prospects of selling it,” he said. “The study might just highlight what is wrong with it.”

Town Manager Micah Maxwell said he and his staff are going to need more direction on the subject but based on what he heard at the meeting he’ll make another presentation to the Commission at a future meeting, likely later in September.

Winston Park future

What should happen to Winston Park? Commissioners were presented with a plan for the park by Parks and Recreation Director Eric Wahlbeck.

Currently the construction company doing road and underground upgrades in the neighborhood is using the park, located at Winston Drive and South Pine Circle, as a staging area. That work should be done by the end of September.

Wahlbeck told the commission that meetings were held with the residents around the park and they had several specific wishes for the facility.

“After a significant brain-storming session the residents said they wanted more open space in the park and they want a play area for the kids,” he said. “And 70 percent of them said they wanted a kayak launch in the park.”

That thought grabbed the attention of Katica, who was concerned that a kayak launch in a small neighborhood park would attract traffic. Wahlbeck said he would not recommend the kayak launch without adding parking spaces and he said two or three spaces could be carved out of the park. Katica wasn’t convinced.

“I’m worried about having to staff the park with this kayak thing,” he said. “Two or three parking spaces are not realistic.”

Piccarreto was not in favor of adding anything to the park.

“The park is good the way it is,” he said. “It is a neighborhood park for people to stroll and enjoy the water and the view.”

In addition to the kayak launch and the play area, Wahlbeck’s plan also called for a Japanese Garden landscaping arrangement and a bridge over a dry riverbed which would be created as part of the landscaping as well as a meandering walkway through the park.

Total cost of the entire package of upgrades would be $85,000. The cost of bringing the park back to the state it was before the construction equipment moved in would be $45,000, something Town Manager Maxwell favored.

Wahlbeck noted that the town’s Parks and Recreation Board unanimously approved the plans for the park.

The issue will be brought back to a future commission meeting and the plans resubmitted, likely without the kayak launch and some planned signage.

Budget to reflect raises

Commissioners agreed that Maxwell and Assistant Town Manager J.P. Murphy should get a raise in the year ahead.

As well, other employees will get a cost of living adjustment in their salaries.

Finance Committee Chairman Tom Olson told the commission that as city officials were looking at the budget they realized that Maxwell and his people were not being paid enough for what they do.

“In the past five years they have not had a merit increase,” he said. “They have managed to get us through a time when there have been declining revenues and increasing costs. And where else has anybody had to deal with an issue like the Biltmore Hotel, and our water system and increased costs for fire service and buying a golf course in the middle of all that. What we are recommending with the increase in the COLA and increases for key staff will cost the town $78,000 and we unanimously recommend it.

The commissioners unanimously agreed and the money will be budgeted in the year ahead.
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