BELLEAIR — The deal to lease some town-owned land to the Belleair Country Club has been approved by the Town Commission.
The unanimous approval was given at the regular Commission meeting July 21. It comes after months of discussion, numerous public meetings and hours of debate.
The land in question is just over an acre adjacent to Hallett Park along the bluff. More than a year ago, the country club asked the town to either sell or lease the land so it could create a new hole that would overlook Clearwater Bay. One club member compared it with the No. 7 hole at the famous Pebble Beach golf course.
As the discussions over the request continued, it became apparent that selling the land was out of the question, but leasing it would be more in line with what residents wanted. There were two public meetings on the land itself to give residents a first-hand look at what they were dealing with.
In the end, a deal was struck that would bring the town just over a million dollars over the term of the lease.
The lease is for 30 years beginning with an upfront payment of $350,000 to the town. Then, for the first 10 years, the club will pay the town $22,500 annually. After that, the amount increases every five years until the final five years, which will see annual payments of just over $25,000.
Add it all up and it comes to just over $1 million.
In addition to that, the club will take over complete responsibility for rebuilding and maintaining the seawall that abuts the property. The timing and method of that rebuild will be subject to town approval. It also has to be within the guidelines of the Southwest Florida Storm Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Several residents in the past were concerned that the deal will prevent them from using part of the land to get down to the water’s edge. The country club agreed to allow residents on the property with the only restriction being they had to give way when there is golf activity in the area. They will be warned of that by some sort of alarm or siren so they can seek safety in a shelter, which will also be provided by the club.
Deputy Mayor Karla Rettstatt wanted to know if the club was prepared to regularly retrieve errant golf balls that find their way into the brush or the bay. Club Attorney David Phillips said he could see no reason why that task couldn’t be given to the company that regularly scours the ponds for lost balls on both courses operated by the club.
“We do it anyway,” he said.
Phillips said he also wanted to make clear that the club would also be responsible for any sales tax that is incurred because of the lease payments.
“We need to clarify that any sales tax will be paid by the club.”
Resident Estelle Demuesy, a member of the town’s Park and Tree Board, said she would like to see the money from the deal go toward maintaining and improving the network of parks in town.
Town Manager J.P. Murphy said the disposal of the money was discussed, as was the idea of having it go toward the upkeep of the town’s parks. He said the initial $350,000 could be used for parks with other options to be discussed for the rest of the money.
Resident Whitney Wilson expressed concern about giving the club control over the seawall.
“I am concerned that by giving the club control we are taking ourselves out of it,” she said. “I am concerned about erosion solutions there and in other areas.”
Murphy responded by saying that a complete engineering study into the issue of the seawall has to be done within a year and the town must sign off on any plans the club has.
Commissioner Michael Wilkinson said he wanted to make sure residents who visit the area are going to be protected from the golfers, and Commissioner Tom Shelly said he agreed with the idea that the money go toward maintaining the park system in town.
Second reading of the ordinance granting the 30-year lease will be at the Aug. 4 commission meeting.
COVID having an effect
For the first time since the coronavirus has hit the town, a commission meeting was held entirely on Zoom. Only Town Manager Murphy and Attorney David Ottinger were in Town Hall. Otherwise, the building was closed. The reason for that was explained by Murphy.
“There are currently four positive cases of the virus among staff here at the Town Hall,” he said. “One of those employees has been off work for 50 days.”
Because of that, Murphy said he was working on a plan to ease the financial pain that might be felt by employees who have to take time off because of the virus.
Currently, the town grants 14 days’ leave with pay for a COVID-19 absence, whether the employee is sick or a family member who needs care. He said that plan just isn’t adequate because of the time it takes to be properly tested and to follow guidelines regarding quarantine and follow-up tests. He said he is working on a number of scenarios that will help the employee up to 320 days.
That led him into a preliminary overview of the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
He said COVID-19 has caused a drop in sales tax revenue for the town, but he said that was offset by the rise in housing prices so there was an increase in ad valorem, or property tax.
However, he warned commissioners that if the millage rate is to remain where it is some tough decisions will have to be made.
Increases in several areas of the budget will require a look at where to find the money to cover those increases.
The deal with Largo for fire protection is going up by $31,000, health care costs for employees is rising by $12,000, the cost of living is going up by $48,000, raises for employees will cost an additional $73,000 and liability insurance is going up by $60,000.
Murphy suggested that this will be the last year he will be able to cover those expenses without having to cut staff or other programs.
“We may be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat this year,” he said.
Later, Rettstatt commented that “pulling a rabbit out of a hat is not the way we should be doing things.”
It will all make for a likely intense budget workshop at 5 p.m. on Aug. 13.