BELLEAIR BEACH — The possibility of charging a toll to cross the Causeway Bridge was discussed at the March 2 City Council meeting.

Mayor Joseph Manzo said he and City Manager Lynn Rives brought up the issue with county officials, as it is a county bridge, and were told they would investigate the possibility of a toll, “but we don’t want to move at the county level unless the City Council is behind it.”

Manzo said he sees a bridge toll as a means of reducing traffic congestion, which he said is ruining the quality of life in Belleair Beach. It could also be a revenue producer, as the city could get a share of the toll revenue.

The toll issue would be looked at countywide, Manzo said, and if agreed to, there could be tolls on other bridges as well.

Manzo said council approval of a toll resolution “would not authorize us to slap a toll on the bridge. It is simply a go-ahead for us to talk with the county and get the ball rolling.”

A bridge toll could be a long time coming, if approved. Manzo said the approval and enactment process could take five to seven years.

Council voted 6-1 to ask the county to investigate the feasibility of a toll for the Belleair Beach Causeway Bridge. Council Member Rita Swope was opposed.

Swope said she was “totally confused by how a toll would help traffic.” People stopping to pay tolls would back up traffic even worse, she said.

Councilman Dave Gattis said the toll collection would likely be done by an electronic reading of license plates rather than toll booths, minimizing delays.

Resident John Handzuk said a bridge toll to reduce traffic congestion “sounds like a good idea.”

Consultant to assist city in getting grants

The council agreed to hire a consulting firm to review and research grant opportunities that the city may qualify for. The cost is $6,000.

Rives said city staff had been looking for grant money to help fund capital projects, but has been largely unsuccessful. He said “a lot of grants are needs-based, and Belleair Beach is not considered a needs community.” The city’s strong financial resources are above the “needs” criteria.

Consulting firm Cardno will give the city an outside opinion on grant availability, Rives said. “They will review our existing capital projects and do research on the possibility of grants.”

Rives said the consultant’s review “will not guarantee we’re going to get anything, but they will look at the possibilities of us obtaining funds.”

Councilwoman Jody Shirley said the $6,000 fee “is a lot to pay for what they’re giving us.” She said the contract with the firm “is pretty vague.”

Rives said the city is looking to increase the stormwater fee to residents to help pay for needed drainage and flood control efforts. “Before we do that, we want to look at the possibility of grants,” he said.

Gattis said having a firm give a second opinion “seems like a nominal investment to see what’s out there and see if they can help us. That fully justifies the price.”

Manzo said the consultant firm is one of the largest in the country that does this type of work.

“It puts to bed the question of what’s out there, and (the $6,000) is not a lot of money to spend,” he said.

City in sound financial shape

The city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for the last fiscal year was a good one. Jeanine Bittinger of the audit firm Saltmarsh, Cleaveland, and Gund said the city’s financial condition is “quite healthy.” She said her firm’s analysis of the city’s finances was “the highest opinion we can render.”

Bittinger said the city is taking in more than it is spending, leaving a $135,000 surplus. Expenses were also under budget by $54,000, she said.

“You created a budget and adhered to it,” Bittinger said. “Good job.”

The financial report was approved by the council in a 7-0 vote.

Antique car show March 22

Vintage vehicles will be the star of the city’s first Antique Car Show on Sunday, March 22, from 2 to 5 p.m. at City Hall. The show will feature the collector cars of local area antique car owners.

The Sheriff’s Office Humvee and the fire department’s antique firetruck will also be there, said June VanScoyoc, chairwoman of the Parks and Recreation Board, the event’s organizer.

The show is one of a series of events taking place in the city this year, all put together by the Parks and Rec Board. They follow a successful introductory schedule of events last year, headlined by the Fall Festival, which is being moved from September to November this year, “when the weather is cooler,” VanScoyoc said.