BELLEAIR – It is now official. Belleair residents will face a slight tax increase in the year ahead. Second and final reading of the budget took place on Sept. 18 and it saw the millage rate jump from 5.94 to 6.02.
The increase, approved unanimously by the commission, adds $36,000 in revenue to the town according to Town Manager Micah Maxwell.
Finance Director J.P. Murphy told the commission that the new tax rate would see the owner of a $250,000 home, with the $50,000 homestead exemption, pay $1,200 a year in property tax.
“That amounts to $143 a month,” he said. “That’s not as much as most people’s cell phone plans and for that they get police and fire protection and other amenities.”
It takes $5.3 million to operate the town of Belleair for a year. Of that amount $180,000 goes to Maxwell’s administrative office, $200,000 to the town clerk’s office. The big spenders are the Police Department with $1.3 million, Parks and Recreation Department at $1.1million, Public Works at $655,000 and the biggest spender Support Services at $1.6 million.
Concerns among some residents related to the ongoing roadwork in the town. For months various neighborhoods have been torn up while infrastructure is being replaced and curbs and gutters installed and streets rebuilt. All part of a $10 million upgrade.
When asked when the work will all be finished, Maxwell replied not anytime soon.
“The work that is going on right now and what has been going on up until now has been the most difficult,” he said. “We have had to replace oversized pipes underground because it is part of the outfall and runoff for stormwater. Future projects won’t be of that magnitude but we can expect work to be going on anywhere from 2017 to 2022.”
Maxwell then turned his attention to the ongoing issue of what to do with the town’s water system. Belleair is one of only a handful of communities in Pinellas County to own and operate its own water system. However experts have predicted the system has only a 10-year life left before it will have to be replaced.
He told the commission that there was money in the budget to undertake a $102,000 study into the future of the system and whether or not the town should consider building its own reverse osmosis system or sell its water system to Clearwater or Pinellas County and buy water back from them.
“We have to have some idea what the water rates will be, either way,” he said. “We also have to get a handle on what our system is worth in the event we want to sell it.”
Mayor Gary Katica joined the discussion by asking if he could explain the situation so people could understand it.
“We can sell our system and get 4 or 5 million dollars for it,” he said. “Or we can build our own reverse osmosis plant at a cost of $9 million. That’s a swing of $13 million dollars, just so we all understand what we’re talking about.”
With the unanimous approval of the budget Maxwell got the green light to begin the study. The fate of the water system will be decided sometime in the future.
Once the budget was passed commissioners then turned their attention to the water rates. They had already approved in first reading a new rate structure, which would see many residents end up with a water bill that would be double what they are paying now.
Murphy explained that for the past five years the water system has cost the town an average of $300,000 a year, and there just wasn’t any more money to pay for that. The system had to begin paying for itself.
Resident Robert Allen said despite spending time with Murphy going over the budget he still wasn’t happy with the increase in water rates.
“We have a $320,000 bleeding ulcer that has to be addressed,” he said. “But this is a disaster; it is unacceptable. We should phase in this rate increase.”
Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto said he was troubled with having to approve the new rates.
“Are there any other alternatives out there?” He asked. “I struggle with having to approve this. It is our only solution but it isn’t easy. We’re spending other people’s money as well as our own.”
In the end Piccarreto joined the other commissioners and the mayor and unanimously approved the new water rate.
Murphy said the new rate will go into effect on Oct. 18 and residents won’t see it until their next bill sometime in late November.
Maxwell gets raise
Commissioners approved a raise for Maxwell. The raise is for $15,000 to give him an annual salary of just over $120,000. That amount places him in the middle range of other town and city managers in Pinellas County.
Maxwell also has budget money to give his management staff salary increases. It has been several years since any of them have had a merit increase. Mayor Gary Katica has said in the past that if the town wanted to keep its key employees it was going to have to pay them appropriately.