BELLEAIR BEACH – The project to underground unsightly overhead wires in the Bellevue Island Estates neighborhood has hit an unexpected setback. It was reported at the Aug. 6 City Council meeting that final cost estimates for the project are coming in significantly higher than what was previously estimated. The long-sought undergrounding project is being paid for by the residents of that neighborhood.

While the initial estimate was known to be preliminary, it was thought to be a reliable number and was used in making decisions about whether to go forward with the project. The 116 homeowners in the affected Bellevue Island Estates neighborhood were told the cost per household for the undergrounding project would be $11,078. Many residents turned out at a meeting in March this year to support the project, and the council voted unanimously to proceed with funding the project through assessments and obtaining a loan.

Now that the cost estimates are being finalized, the cost per household has jumped nearly 50 percent to over $16,000. The costs will be higher for those who want to finance the payments over 20 years rather than make one payment up front. The total cost of the project is now estimated at $1.9 million.

Despite the cost increase, council member Glenn Gunn, who lives in the Bellevue Island Estates neighborhood and was elected on a pledge to get the undergrounding project moving forward, said he was confident the involved residents will want the progress toward completion to continue.

“Get it done,” said Gunn.

The council voted unanimously to go through the necessary process to obtain approval for supplemental assessments. It is essential to move quickly to get the higher assessment amounts approved because the plan has been to place these assessments on the property tax bills that will be going out in October. The tax appraiser’s office must receive the assessment numbers by Saturday, Sept. 15. Failure to provide the numbers by that date will force the assessments to be delayed a year.

A public hearing will be held Wednesday, Sept. 5, so that a decision can be made on the assessment amounts in time to meet the property appraiser’s deadline.

Chris Roe, the city’s consultant on the project approval process, emphasized the importance of getting the new assessment amounts approved on Sept. 5.

“If the council doesn’t move forward with the assessment, then basically the project comes to a halt,” Roe said.

It is also important to make sure the assessment amounts are adequate to cover the costs. City Manager Lynn Rives said he now has binding estimates from Duke and Spectrum, and other cost estimates related to the project “are on the high side.” Once the assessment amounts are given to the tax appraiser’s office, the amounts cannot be raised, but if actual costs turn out to be lower than the assessed amount, a rebate could be given.

The council also took action on getting a new engineering consultant. The engineering firm CPWG was retained last year to get the project started and come up with cost estimates. City officials were not happy with the understated project cost estimates from that firm.

So, there is a need to get a new round of bids from firms interested in serving as the city’s engineering consultant on the project, Rives said. He said at the time the original bids were solicited “we thought CPWG was the only firm capable of doing the work. Now we know there are several out there, and we want to hear from the others.”

If the new assessment amounts are approved and submitted to the property appraiser this year, the project is expected to get started in early 2019.

Online resident surveys

Council members Gunn and Nicholas Pavouris are encouraging city officers and other members of council to come up with “best practices,” innovative approaches to government invented or borrowed from other communities. A workshop series that even includes Best Practices has been established.

As a best practice, Rives decided to do an online survey to look at residents’ opinions on a number of issues. About a hundred residents participated.

Rives gave some highlights from the survey results. It showed over 94 percent supported enforcement of city codes. The top five priorities for code enforcement were derelict, abandoned or unkept houses, lawn care and appearance, short term rentals, boat and RV storage, and on-street parking.

About 80 percent of those answering the survey said they used the city beach accesses. Dogs on the beach and failure to pick up after them were the most common complaint written in the “comments” section of the survey, Rives said.

The residents have a positive opinion of city staff, with almost 90 percent rating their experience with staff members.

“There were a lot of great comments about the city staff members,” Rives said.

Rives said the city plans to continue to survey residents via email from time to time to get their opinions on various topics. Any residents wanting to be included should email the city at info@cityofbelleairbeach.com.