BELLEAIR BEACH — The damaged message sign at City Hall will be replaced by a digital sign with words only — no pictures.

The City Council agreed to make the switch from the current sign, which had letters manually placed on it, to an electronic sign at its Jan. 4 meeting.

The digital sign was the unanimous choice of the council members after being told by City Manager Lynn Rives that it was the least expensive option, less costly than one that would have both digital and manually placed letters and even cheaper than a sign like the old one.

The digital sign would cost about $37,000, the old-style sign around $40,000 and the mixed sign would up the price to about $45,000, according to price estimates presented by Rives.

Rives said a concern of the council had been “we’re going to put something like Disney here. That is not the intent,” he said.

The digital sign would have letters, not pictures. Rives also said the city Communications Committee had recommended going with the digital style.

A digital sign with animated pictures had last been proposed and rejected by the council several years ago after a number of residents protested it would not fit the character of Belleair Beach.

Mayor Joseph Manzo said he favored the digital sign after hearing the options explained.

“I was in favor of keeping the old style, but if it costs more than digital, it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Council member Rita Swope said she favored spending the extra money for the mixed sign that would allow both digital and placed-letter options, so “we can add verbiage for emergencies.”

“It would be for the safety of the community,” Swope said. “Spend the added money so we can make an announcement when something is really important, like an evacuation.”

She later agreed to the digital sign after council member Dave Gattis pointed out the color of the words could be changed to focus on important topics.

Rives will solicit bids on the digital sign. He said the city will get some insurance money for the old sign, which blew down.

Utility undergrounding under budget, resident refunds coming

The undergrounding of utilities and installation of solar lights in the Bellevue Estates Island neighborhood, which has been a major goal of several council members, is now complete, and the project’s cost has come in significantly under budget, said Rives.

The job had been paid for mostly through assessments of the neighborhood’s residents, and now they will be getting some money back, Rives said.

“The people there will be very happy,” said Rives. “They will be getting a ‘Belleair Beach stimulus check,’” he jokingly added.

Rives said the project had been estimated to cost $2.2 million, and ended up at $1.82 million, so the $380,000 savings will be given back to the residents. Those who are making annual assessment payments will get a reduction of the payment amount, while people who made a lump payment up-front will get a check.

He said the project had “great support from council members and residents throughout, and the residents were very helpful,” Rives said.

Following the discussion, Vice Mayor Glenn Gunn, who has been a key leader of the undergrounding project, gave praise to Rives and council member Marvin Behm.

“They’re the guys that made coming in under budget possible,” Gunn said. “That’s why the money’s coming back.”

Gunn also recommended other areas of the city band together to do a similar undergrounding effort. Streets like Hibiscus, Harrison and Howard “could really be a showplace,” he said. “We just need to band together to get the economies of scale to make it possible to get these things done.”

Gunn said the undergrounding of his neighborhood, Bellevue Estates Island, is a model to follow.

“When you look at the work that’s been done here, it’s been a huge improvement for the city,” he said.

Policy to be created on remote attendance at meetings

An item placed on the agenda by Gunn about creating a policy for remote attendance at council meetings generated a lot of comment from council members but no specific decisions on what that policy would look like. It is clear there will be much more discussion before a policy is adopted.

Gunn said his purpose in bringing the topic up was, first of all, “to have a policy in writing, so that everybody can refer to it,” and secondly, as a basis for upgrading the technology to make it easier for council members and/or citizens to participate in meetings remotely.

Several council members said the Zoom meetings held during most of 2020 had worked well, and that more residents had actually logged on to those meetings than the usual in-person attendance at regular meetings. The council appeared to favor using electronic media to accommodate a mixture of in-person and remote attendance by council members and residents at meetings.

Near the end of the discussion, Victor Burianek, who currently makes videos of the council meetings and puts them on the internet, came to the podium to comment.

“I’m hearing this discussion going back and forth, and you guys are reinventing the wheel,” Burianek said. He mentioned there are other cities he works for that are doing the things Belleair Beach is discussing, in particular Indian Rocks Beach, and suggested he could provide information on the subject.

The council agreed to put the topic on the agenda of the Jan. 20 workshop with a presentation by Burianek as well as a report by City Attorney Fred Reilly, who will be researching case law on some of the issues related to attendance at government meetings.

Contested city races

There will be an election in the city this spring, with five candidates vying for three seats. Incumbents Gunn and Jody Shirley will be joined by residents Frank Bankard, Kathleen Klaeser, and former Mayor Leslie Notaro in the contest. The top three vote-getters will be elected. Council member Behm is also up for re-election but has decided not to run again.

There will be a candidate forum from 7 to 8 p.m. Jan. 21, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, where residents can learn more about the candidates. It will be a virtual meeting. Details will be available on the city’s website at www.cityofbelleairbeach.com.