BELLEAIR BLUFFS – Faced with a state order to pay its former firefighters annuity payments totaling well over $1 million, the city of Belleair Bluffs has chosen a less expensive option that could save about $250,000.
The alternative plan, which involves “share money” held by the state to be distributed to the firefighters, would show savings for the city and give the firefighters additional money, Mayor Chris Arbutine has said.
“It’s a win-win situation for all,” Arbutine said last month.
The commission passed an emergency ordinance approving the share plan at the Dec. 17 regular meeting. The “emergency” designation lets the ordinance take effect immediately upon a two-thirds commission approval, without requiring a second reading. The vote was 5-0 in favor of the plan. The Fire Pension Board was made aware of the city’s offer, but took no action at their meeting Dec. 14.
City Attorney Thomas Trask said the state administrative judge’s directive that requires the city to pay the annuities also allows the state Department of Management Services, the pension board and the city of Belleair Bluffs to work out a settlement agreement.
“Nothing in the judge’s order prevents the parties from settling,” Trask said.
Resident George Lawton wanted to know if the city is sure to get the share plan money. Trask said he had spoken with the state’s attorney and was assured the funds are still available.
Trask said following the meeting that the pension settlement will require another week or so for the details to be worked out with the DMS and Pension Board attorneys.
Dolphin Pond agreement to be a top priority
Reaching an agreement with residents in the Dolphin Drive neighborhood that would allow the city to begin needed dredging of its retention ponds there remains elusive. But answers were provided to some of the objections raised by neighborhood representative Jeff Washburn in a letter he wrote to Attorney Trask in October.
In the letter, Washburn said he believed the city’s use of the ponds for retention and settlement of storm water runoff is “in contravention of the federal Clean Water Act, as well as state and county environmental regulations.”
An environmental consultant contacted by Trask has assured the city that there is no violation of the Clean Water Act, Southwest Florida Water Management District, or federal Department of Environmental Protection regulations, Trask said at the meeting.
“The city is acting appropriately,” Trask said.
Whether those assurances will be enough to satisfy Washburn and the neighbors appears doubtful. Trask did not mention other objections and comments made by Washburn in the letter.
Washburn was at the meeting and responded, “I do not agree with the way this has been handled.”
The dispute with the city over drainage of the ponds has been going on for several years. The main issue has been the residents’ refusal to grant the city permanent property easements, which has been a condition for the city to continue maintenance of the ponds.
Arbutine remains confident the matter can still be resolved. Despite the rebuff by Washburn at the meeting, Arbutine vowed to meet with him and “get us back on track.”
Further, the mayor said his goal for the coming year is to get the Dolphin Pond issue taken care of.
“That’s my number one priority,” he said.
Washburn replied, “Mine too.”
Arbutine re-elected, commission race set
Mayor Chris Arbutine is set to win a seventh term in office, while three candidates will run for two commission seats up for election next March.
The qualifying period in Belleair Bluffs ended Dec. 18. Arbutine was the only candidate for mayor. Newcomer George Lawton will join incumbents Jack Nazario and Suzy Sofer to run for two commission seats. The seats will go to the top two vote getters in the election to be held March 12.