BELLEAIR BLUFFS — Several cities in Pinellas County have created grant programs to aid businesses adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Largo, for instance, is offering one-time $1,000 payments to brick-and-mortar small businesses that have been forced to shut down.
Mayor Chris Arbutine said Belleair Bluffs should also consider offering aid, but suggested to commissioners April 27 that the city should explore a different path that might be more equitable: lowering the property tax rate.
Arbutine, co-owner of the Silver Queen Inc. in Largo, said he thinks the city should take a longer-term approach to helping out businesses and residents because nobody knows what the economic fallout is going to be just yet.
“The effects that this shutdown is having on the economy is not going to rear its ugly head for another two or three months,” he said.
He added that the city is heading into its budget cycle, so this would be a good time to start the discussion.
“Maybe we talk about lowering the millage this year to reflect some of that,” he said. “Not permanently but maybe give some COVID relief. Rather than give people back money, just say, ‘Hey, look we understand. It’s going to be a tough year.’ You get to everybody. You get to businesses that way, homeowners. So maybe we talk about a tax decrease this year specifically because of COVID.”
City Administrator Debra Sullivan said she liked that idea more than creating a new grant program because budget hearings will be held in May or June, which gives the city plenty of time to determine the financial impact of lowering the millage rate.
Instead of creating a grant program the likes of Largo, Tarpon Springs, Clearwater, Pinellas Park or St. Petersburg, Arbutine said he preferred the dust to settle on federal funding first.
“I think it’s good that we started this discussion, but I think we’re going to know more of the landscape in about 30 days,” he said.
He initially floated the idea of offering $200 to $300 to each household in the city.
However, City Attorney Tom Trask said the Florida Constitution wouldn’t allow that to happen.
“There has to be a public purpose involved and I’m not sure you can argue that that’s a public purpose to use taxpayer dollars to give to your residents,” he said. “You have a little bit of an argument when you talk about businesses because that’s keeping the economy of your city rolling.”
Arbutine said he didn’t like giving grants to just businesses because it left out others, who might feel they were ignored by city leaders.
He also wasn’t confident the money would be spent wisely.
“I hate to say it, but … you just hate giving cash back because you don’t know what they are going to do with it,” he said.
Commissioners agreed to reassess the economic landscape again next month and continue the conversation.