BELLEAIR BLUFFS – The Belleair Bluffs City Commission appears ready to lift a long-standing ban on imposing a utility tax, which covers water, sewer and electricity.
Mayor Chris Arbutine told the commission that Belleair Bluffs struggles with its budget every year.
“If we don’t charge a tax on power or water, our only option is to raise the ad valorem tax (millage rate),” he said.
Arbutine said repealing the utility tax ban “is not about passing a tax, it’s about giving the commission what it needs to raise money.”
Belleair Bluffs’ existence as a city may depend on finding new sources of revenue, Arbutine said. “Whether a power or water tax, we are potentially going to have to pass something to stay a city. By doing nothing, we can’t exist anymore.”
Arbutine said he lives in Belleair Bluffs because “I wanted a certain style of living and safe streets.”
He said he does not want the city to become a part of Largo or any other community.
Commissioner Joe Barkley said removing the prohibition on a utility tax would “give us some flexibility.”
He added, “It’s not as easy to move the ad valorem tax up or down.”
Arbutine said lifting the ban “is not asking to pass a utility tax. It is un-handcuffing us so we can pass it if we need it.”
Commission members were reacting to a tax and fee comparison analysis given by Pinellas Planning Council Interim Director Mike Crawford at the Sept. 10 commission workshop.
Crawford’s analysis showed Belleair Bluffs was one of only six municipalities in the county not charging some form of utility tax. Last year, the commission raised the city’s millage rate by a full point to 5.35, the fifth highest rate in the county, to avoid raiding the city’s reserve funds for the fourth straight year.
Belleair Bluffs residents’ average residential tax and fee burden is less than half that of neighboring Belleair and about a third of what Belleair Beach charges its citizens, Crawford said. Those communities also have more expensive homes. Bluffs city taxes are more in line with Largo, where home values are about one-third lower, he said.
A 10 percent utility fee on electricity and water/sewer could add over $200 a year to the average taxpayer’s bill, according to Crawford’s analysis.
Most inland communities have these taxes, Arbutine said.
“Everybody else that doesn’t have a utility tax has significantly higher property values,” he said.
Belleair Bluffs residents are already paying a utility tax, Commissioner Taylour Shimkus said. She looked at her electric bills going back to last February, and there was a 10 percent municipal tax added to the bill. That charge is going to Progress Energy, not Belleair Bluffs, but residents still have to pay it.
“If people are already paying 10 percent and we put in another 10 percent, the electric bill has gone up 20 percent,” Shimkus said. “That adds up, and people need to be aware of that.”
The commission agreed by consensus to put the removal of the utility tax ban on the agenda for next Monday’s regular commission meeting.
Boat/RV parking rules may change
On the prodding of a resident, the commissioners looked at changing an ordinance that allows boats and recreational vehicles to be parked in residents’ driveways for no more than seven days out of a 30-day period.
Darlene Kavanagh complained that police often show up to cite her under the law even when she is in compliance. Public Works Director Robert David admitted the ordinance is difficult to enforce.
City Clerk Debra Sullivan said, “It is impossible to monitor.”
The commission agreed to change the ordinance to permit boat and RV parking overnight on weekends (Friday night and Saturday night) and specific holidays.
That was not the change Kavanagh wanted.
“I am a nurse who works on weekends and have my days off during the week, so this won’t work for me,” she said.
The change also could be viewed as discriminating against people in similar situations, she said.
Last month, she had asked the commission to consider making the law less restrictive, even allowing boats and RVs to be parked in residents’ driveways continually if properly maintained and licensed.
Arbutine said the ordinance as amended would satisfy the needs of the majority of people, who have their weekends off. Overnight parking also would be allowed the night before holidays. He said this approach would be less restrictive and definitely easier to enforce.
Bridge bathrooms/bait house update
New restrooms for the causeway bridge, replacing the current portable facilities, could be set up by the end of the year, Commissioner Suzy Sofer said.
The bait house will be done “a year or so later,” she said.
Sofer reported on a meeting she and city officials had with Mark Pistillo, senior project manager for the county building design and construction department.
The restroom building, described as “temporary yet permanent looking,” would be placed near the bait house, allowing for the use of water and sewer lines that are already there, Sofer said. The structure would be “floodable and anchorable.”
A prototype of the restroom facility was shown at the meeting. The “Cortez” design features barn wood walls and a cedar shake roof. Sofer said the esthetics, including the color, would tie in to the bait house.
Restrooms also will be located inside the bait house.
Resident June Hellsen, who lives in a condo overlooking the bridge, said the current portable restrooms are rarely used. Money would be better spent, she said, on fixing a drainage problem in the middle of the parking lot, where water is always standing and mosquitoes are a problem. Get rid of the drainage ditch and beautify the area with landscaping, Hellsen advised.