BELLEAIR BEACH — The City Council gave a final approval for the purchase of solar street lights to light the Bellevue Estates Island neighborhood, where utilities are being undergrounded. Going solar is the latest innovation for the neighborhood, which also will be the first area in the city to convert from overhead to buried utility wires.

The action came at the March 4 City Council meeting, and means City Manager Lynn Rives is now authorized to purchase the solar lights and have them put in. That will take about 120 days, he said.

Then, Belleair Beach will become the first city in Pinellas County, and one of the first in the state to have solar streetlights. Rives said Pompano Beach, north of Fort Lauderdale, had installed a pilot project but rejected a total switchover, mainly due to costs.

The cost to purchase the solar lights, about $160,000, is significantly less than previous estimates ranging up to $250,000. That was due to tough negotiating on the part of resident and undergrounding committee member Steve Marsh.

Rives said Marsh “really whittled (the vendor, ClearWorld) down and got a great price.” Solar streetlighting for the Bellevue Estates Island neighborhood had been looked at earlier in the project planning and rejected as too expensive.

The residents of Bellevue Estates will bear most of the cost of the lighting, as an added assessment to what they are paying for the undergrounding work. The city has agreed to pay $46,000 of the $160,000 price, which is what it would cost to rent the 31 poles for 10 years if the neighborhood had chosen to go with standard streetlights, Rives said.

In a comment after the meeting, Rives said the authorization given at the council meeting to purchase the solar streetlights is the final action needed from council. He said the city “can now buy the lights, have them installed, and by mid-summer the solar option should become a reality in Belleair Beach.”

The purchase authorization approved by council is a sole-source purchase agreement, which allows Rives to buy RetroFlex solar LED streetlights, a patented product made by ClearWorld. Their design has the solar panels wrapped around the poles, rather than large solar panels projecting out from the top of the poles. That is an option some consider unsightly and which Rives said could be more easily damaged or destroyed during a storm.

The solar lights have a 10-year warranty, and the city will do any maintenance required, Rives said.

The city has had a solar light pole up for eight months as a test, and Rives said only one adjustment has been needed during that time.

Employee compensation splits council

The council split over how to deal with pay increases and bonuses, based on the performance evaluations of City Manager Rives and City Clerk Patti Gentry.

The council narrowly decided to give Gentry a 3 percent salary increase instead of a bonus payment. Mayor Leslie Notaro said money is in the budget for the increase, and “I suggest we go ahead and give Patti the 3 percent.”

Council member Wanda Schwerer made the motion on the salary increase for the city clerk.

Council member Glenn Gunn objected, citing total personnel costs in the city which he said were more than $650,000.

“This is not sustainable,” he said.

He went on to say he would support a merit bonus for Gentry, since that is a one-time payment that does not have the lasting impact on the budget of a salary increase.

Gunn stressed that council should look at the entire personnel evaluation process, including job qualifications and descriptions, and compensation.

“While I appreciate the good work that the staff’s doing, I don’t think we have a full comprehension of the impacts of the evaluation process and the impacts on our budget,” Gunn said.

Council Member Jody Shirley said she agreed that the personnel evaluation process needed to be evaluated. She pointed out that while Gentry had received generally positive reviews, many council members made no comments as to why.

The vote split 4-3 in favor of a salary increase. Council members Gunn, Shirley, and Todd Harper were opposed, because of their preference for a bonus instead.

Council then decided in a 5-2 vote to give Rives a bonus payment only. Gunn, who voted no, said that while Rives does “an exemplary job,” he is already being paid for the combined job of city manager and public works director, even though the city has since hired an additional person for public works.

Departing council members applauded

The council and audience members gave a round of applause and had words of appreciation for council members John Pietrowski and Wanda Schwerer, who did not seek re-election this year. Both have served eight years on council.

“It has been an honor and privilege to serve this community, and I hope you keep striving to go forward,” said Pietrowski.

Schwerer said, “It has been fun being on council.”

She commended the city’s “great staff,” who she said “helped to get us where we are.”

Schwerer said she believed the council had “made a lot of progress over the past several years.”

“I’m not going to go away. I’ll be around,” she added.

“Thank you for your service,” Shirley told Pietrowski and Schwerer.

“Sorry to see you go, but thank you for everything you’ve done to help us with council, and to help us be acclimated as new council members,” she said.

“You’ve been good role models and I’ve enjoyed working with you,” said Harper.