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Utility tax fails in Belleair Bluffs
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BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Residents will not be seeing a tax from the city added to their water, sewer or electric bills any time soon. A move to lift the city of Belleair Bluff’s current ban on a utility tax failed at the Sept. 17 Town Commission meeting.

The issue was killed when a motion made by Commissioner Jack Nazario to pass an ordinance that would have authorized establishing utility taxes in the city did not gain a second.

The action was a surprise, as the commission had appeared at their Sept. 10 workshop to be ready to repeal the current law prohibiting utility taxes. At that session, Mayor Chris Arbutine made an impassioned plea for the tax as a possible additional source of revenue. He had predicted dire consequences without it.

“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 had said.

Commissioner Joe Barkley added that having a utility tax as an option would give the city more flexibility and be easier “to move up or down” than the ad valorem tax.

When the motion was made by Nazario to remove the ban, neither Barkley nor Commissioners Suzy Sofer or Taylour Shimkus would provide a second needed to bring the issue to a vote.

At the close of the meeting, Arbutine said he was disappointed at the commission’s failure to act. The mayor said he does not want to see the city have to scrimp to get by on low revenues. Belleair Bluffs has a quality of life that needs a certain level of income to support, he said.

“We have a city where our families are safe, where they do not get attacked or raped, where streetlights work and people do not fall down because of ill-repaired roads,” Arbutine said.

Arbutine said his parents moved from “a crappy neighborhood with creepy people” in Seminole to Belleair Bluffs years ago. “They wanted us to have a great place to live,” he said.

Maintaining the quality of life enjoyed by Belleair Bluffs residents takes money, Arbutine said. “There’s a lot more to it than saying, ‘I don’t want to raise taxes.’”

Commissioner Suzy Sofer said following the meeting that she did not feel this is the appropriate time to consider a tax that affects both residents and businesses.

“It’s a difficult period for people who are watching their budget,” she said. Sofer said the city needs to figure out ways to generate revenue instead of imposing additional taxes.

Barkley said later that he did not second the motion to remove the ban because a number of residents had contacted him since the workshop to express concerns about the issue. Also, Barkley said he would support a utility tax initially only if it is revenue neutral (does not increase city revenues).

“I want to talk with some more residents, and also make sure any future utility tax is revenue neutral before I would support removing the tax ban in the future,” Barkley said.

Residents report coyote attacks

Coyotes are apparently on the prowl again. After a long absence of coyote related complaints, the commission heard from two residents who had lost pets following coyote attacks.

“The coyotes are really bad,” Barry Lonas of Bluff View Drive said. Coyotes had killed two of his family’s cats. One was ripped in half.

“My wife went berserk” after that incident, Lonas related. “Within a minute, the cat was gone.”

Lonas asked the city for assistance in dealing with the coyotes. He said a county official had told him to throw firecrackers at the animals. Fireworks are illegal in Belleair Bluffs, Public Works Director Robert David reminded Lonas.

Coyotes are also difficult to trap, David said.

David Cortright, who lives near city hall, said he has lost a cat to coyotes. Darlene Cavanagh also has concerns about coyotes, and also hawks, which she has seen near her residence. She fears they may attack her two small dogs.

Commissioner Barkley said education of citizens about coyotes and their habits, and precautions to take against them, is the key to controlling the coyote population. Attempts to eradicate the animals have been mostly unsuccessful, he said, because threats cause them to produce more offspring and increase their overall number.

Pets should not be allowed outdoors unleashed, and garbage containers must be closed and secured, Barkley advised. Pets’ food dishes should never be left outside.

Millage rate set, final budget OK’d

The commission left the city’s millage rate unchanged at 5.35 mils and approved a final budget of a little over $3 million for the upcoming fiscal year at a final budget hearing held before the regular commission meeting.

The budget reflects a spending increase of 33 percent over last year’s final budget. The significant rise in expenditure is related to an anticipated pension obligation due former Belleair Bluffs firefighters. The budget includes $1.3 million for that expense, to be taken from the city’s reserve funds.

The city has fought the firefighters’ requests, offering a lesser amount. A decision on the pension issue is expected soon.

Though the millage rate was raised a full point (23 percent) last year to avoid raiding the city’s reserve funds, a portion of the reserves will still be needed to meet the coming year’s obligations in addition to the large pension payout, Finance Director Debra Sullivan said.
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