BELLEAIR BLUFFS — The trimming of low-hanging trees on the city’s east side has been completed, Public Works Supervisor Russ Schmader announced at the Sept. 16 City Commission meeting. The project’s completion means that the streets in the city east of Indian Rocks Road will be free of dangerously low tree branches.

The work began last September when the commission approved a contract with a tree service to “elevate the canopies under the trees for 15-feet ground clearance whose spreading branches have become an obstacle to traffic.”

Schmader has said the low-hanging trees were one of the first things he noticed when he came to work at Belleair Bluffs last year. The garbage trucks were being damaged by the trees, and the low limbs also presented a problem for emergency vehicles, especially fire trucks.

Commissioner Taylour Shimkus, who lives on a street where the trees have been trimmed, said the branches overhanging the roads had become so low, there was not enough room for large vehicles to get through, including fire trucks and ambulances, moving vans, school buses, tractor-trailer trucks or large delivery trucks.

June was an especially “soggy month,” when low-hanging trees became “a major issue,” Schmader said.

Now that tree-trimming is complete on the east side, Schmader said work will begin on the west side, which will be done in phases.

In a comment after the meeting, Shimkus said she was glad to see the tree-trimming complete in her neighborhood and the city’s east side. Residents can now feel safer knowing emergency vehicles can get through the streets without any potential problem, and their vans and motor homes will not be damaged by tree limbs, she said.

Residents to get monthly street sweepings

City streets will get a cleaning every month, rather than every other month, beginning in October. Schmader said the schedule with the city’s street sweeping company had been revised to allow the more frequent sweepings.

Stormwater inlets checked, maintained

With hurricane season at its peak, Schmader said city crews have been checking the stormwater inlets throughout the city, and doing maintenance where needed. The project is giving residents an extra measure of protection from flooding during the storm and rainy seasons. This is another project city workers are handling, rather than contracted companies, saving time and money, Schmader said.

City to get additional FEMA hurricane money

City Clerk Alexis Silcox, who is also the city’s hurricane response coordinator, said more money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency may be coming to pay for damages caused by Hurricane Irma two years ago.

Silcox said FEMA has raised its threshold for storm damage payouts from 75 and 80 percent to 90 percent, meaning reimbursements will be higher.

“We should get more money back than we anticipated,” Silcox said.

Belleair Bluffs has received $209,000 so far on FEMA payments related to Hurricane Irma, Silcox said. She has also applied for mitigation funds, which cover spending intended to reduce storm damage in the future or fund emergency response training.

The city was the first in the state to get back all the money due, which City Administrator Debra Sullivan credited to Silcox.

“We got paid for everything we submitted,” said Sullivan. “The FEMA money will total a quarter-million dollars.”

Commissioner Suzy Sofer praised Silcox’s work in getting the FEMA payouts and following up on the additional money available.

“She’s doing a fantastic job,” Sofer said.

Property tax rate unchanged

In a budget hearing preceding the regular commission meeting, the commission voted unanimously to set the final millage rate at 5.35 mills. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

The rate, though unchanged, is an increase over the roll-back rate of 5.05, which would bring in the same revenue as last year. The roll-back rate eliminates taxes going up due to rising property values.

Some residents said the roll-back rate should be adopted. Kathy McNally said water and sewer fees are going up for residents, and the roll-back rate would give the city the same revenue as the past year.

“Vote for the roll-back rate,” said Steve McNally. “That is the smart thing to do.”

Darlene Kavanagh, a frequent advocate for controlling costs, also asked the commission to “go back to the roll-back rate.”

Mayor Chris Arbutine said expensive road projects are getting done. “We have to have money for that, and there is no grant money available from Swiftmud anymore,” he said.

Arbutine also said the city has a new financial committee comprised of residents who went over the budget in detail. “They advised and we listened to them,” Arbutine said. He noted that the committee includes residents who have been critical of commission spending in the past.