Sixteen new buoys will cover the length of Belleair Beach 300 feet from shore.

BELLEAIR BEACH — The city has taken a decisive step to speed up completion of the remaining work on its major stormwater drainage project.

At an April 3 meeting, City Council members unanimously approved taking out a $2,120,000 loan that would enable them to finish the project in two years rather than the scheduled five years, while saving money at the same time.

Belleair Beach, like most cities on the barrier islands, has been plagued with flooded streets for many years. In 2017, crews started repairs with the highly flood-prone streets at the south end of town, installing new underground stormwater piping and repaving the roads. 

Last year, bids the city received for advancing the work to 12th and 13th Streets were way over budget, due to a rise in the price of materials and labor. That prompted a reevaluation this year of the remaining work to be done.

City Manager Kyle Riefler said advice from the city’s Citizens Advisory Committee led the council to consider consolidating the remaining work into one big project, financed by a loan, and put on a fast track for completion. In the past, bids were usually obtained annually, as each new phase of the project began.

The expectation is that the larger project would benefit from economies of scale, and the project would be finished sooner by doing more streets at the same time. Also, a 10-year loan at 4.36% interest and paid back at an accelerated pace would minimize financing costs, Riefler said.

Citizen comments were favorable to the proposed financing of the stormwater project.

“I’m here to very strongly support the proposal,” said Kim Shaw Elliott, calling it a creative solution to a critical problem. She listed some of the benefits such as the opportunity to have better pricing, and being able to finish the whole project in just two years.

“We don’t know when the next big event will occur, and having our streets taken care of now is really, really important,” she said.

Shaw also cautioned that it is important to “reassess and confirm the needs of the project, so that we don’t rebuild in a way that will be proven inadequate.”

Resident John Handzuk, who is a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee, said an advantage of doing several streets at the same time is that the high cost of mobilizing heavy equipment is not repeated for each street. This could save thousands of dollars, he said, compared to the multiple trips that were necessary in the past.

City officials said the planning phase of this project is critical. As for the timing, Riefler said he’s aiming to get the design and bid done by September.

“This is a big project for the city, so I plan to take a little longer on the vendor selection process,” Riefler told Tampa Bay Newspapers. “The start of construction will be determined by the supplier timelines. I hope to break ground by the fall.”


Parking fines raised

Last month the council voted to raise parking rates at the city’s four parking lots, as it doubled weekend rates to $10 an hour, and limited parking to only three hours a day. Those actions are part of an effort by the city to open more parking spaces for residents who park free but often cannot find a parking space on the beach, especially on weekends.

The next step was taken April 3, with a vote to increase parking fines. Currently the fine is $35 per day for failing to pay for parking and other infractions. The new fine will be $55.

Council member Frank Bankard said “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist” to do the math on the choice between paying $30 to park for three hours versus ignoring the parking meter and just paying the $35 fine for parking all day.

The city is also switching to an outside vendor, ParkMobile, to manage its parking. ParkMobile’s system enables better enforcement so that parkers who overstay their time or just don’t pay at all are likely to get caught and ticketed.

An ordinance raising the parking fine passed unanimously. A second reading can be expected to have the same result.


New buoys line beach

The city manager’s report included an update on the recent installation of new beach buoys. Riefler said there are 16 of them covering the length of Belleair Beach, placed 300 feet from shore. That placement is somewhat closer to the beach since erosion has changed the shoreline. The line of existing older buoys is due to be removed.

The new buoys are labeled “Manually propelled vessels only” and are intended to create a safe zone for swimmers and manually-powered vessels like paddleboards, kayaks, and canoes.

Prohibited are motorboats as well as wind powered sailboats and the popular kitesurfing boards; they must stay outside of the buoys. This is a change from past practice in Belleair Beach, which had allowed motorboats to come to shore at low speed. The city recently changed its code to comply with guidelines from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

City responds to rights group

City officials were quick to respond to a prominent civil rights advocacy group that challenged a city ordinance it says restricts residents’ First Amendment rights.

The group, called Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, raised the issue in a letter to the city on March 27.

It said a city rule that bars “organized” or “political” gatherings of 10 or more people in public spaces suppresses residents’ rights to speech, assembly and association.

The issue was added to the regular council meeting agenda for discussion and formulation of a response to the group. City Attorney Randy Mora led the discussion, starting off by saying the group was not objecting to any specific incident but rather was aiming to have the city remove or update the existing code, which dates back to 2018.

“I agree that the ordinance suffers defects and needs revision,” Mora said.

The council voted unanimously to authorize the attorney to draft an ordinance that will revise the code. The draft ordinance will be ready for the council workshop on April 17, and then proceed to first reading for a vote on May 1.

Mayor Dave Gattis told Mora to tell the advocacy group “we are responding to their request and will not give them any pushback on it.”