BELLEAIR BEACH – Utility undergrounding in the Bellevue Estates neighborhood will go forward, despite a significant increase in resident assessments. The City Council voted unanimously at its Sept. 5 meeting in favor of approving the higher assessments and related conditions, giving their go-ahead for the project to continue.

The increases are substantial. Council members learned at last month’s council meeting that new undergrounding cost numbers are nearly 50 percent higher than what was estimated earlier this year. At that time, the affected residents were told the undergrounding could cost a little over $11,000 per household. That number has now jumped to over $16,000.

The cost increase now totals over $600,000, and the overall project cost is nearly $2 million.

Despite the increase in cost, Councilman Glenn Gunn, who lives in the Bellevue Estates neighborhood and was elected on a pledge to get the undergrounding done, said at last month’s meeting he was confident the involved residents wanted the project to be completed. “Get it done,” Glenn had said.

The higher costs came as binding estimates were received from utilities, and other costs were higher than expected. City Manager Lynn Rives blamed the unexpected price jump on understated project cost estimates from the previous engineering firm hired to manage the undergrounding project. The city is now looking for a new engineering consultant.

There is still some opportunity for cost savings on the project, Rives said.

“It is time to worry about the future and forget about the past,” he said in urging council to approve the go-ahead resolution. Rives added he has so far received 17 emails from residents in favor of continuing with the undergrounding despite the increased costs, and 3 opposed.

Rives said at the September meeting he is ready to move forward with the undergrounding.

A roomful of residents from the Bellevue Estates Island neighborhood showed up at the September meeting. They spoke at the public hearing on the undergrounding resolution, most urging council to move ahead with the project they have waited for years to see happen.

“I am fully supportive of continuing with (the undergrounding), and I ask your approval,” said Ron Ciganek.

“Do it now, or we’re going to continue to have cost increases,” said Jane Goldman. “If you don’t do it now, you’re making a grave mistake.”

Phil Henderson said, “I am also in full support of it.”

Echoing Gunn’s earlier words, Henderson said, “Get it done.”

“This will be the boiler plate for future undergrounding projects in Belleair Beach,” said Bill Lusk.

“This would have gone very smoothly except for the miscalculations by engineering. That should not be the case in the future,” Lusk said.

“I represent three other neighbors who couldn’t be here tonight, and we all want to move forward,” said Cindy Minton.

A few residents had some misgivings about the undergrounding effort.

Robyn Ache said she is “for undergrounding, but this project didn’t seem to be designed very well.”

“I was kind of unimpressed. That’s a big chunk of change to pay,” said Ache. “Will something else come up in the future?”

Laurence Fentriss said for the added cost “we could go solar.”

“I don’t understand why we missed the cost estimate by so much,” said Fentriss, who said he wanted to put the undergrounding issue “back before the residents and let them revote on whether they still want it.”

But most agreed with Owen Ewing, who said he is “totally in favor of this project.”

“(The utility undergrounding) will have a very positive impact on the community,” Ewing said. “It will increase property values, and make Belleair Beach a better place to live.”

Gunn said even the missteps in the project would be helpful when utility undergrounding is done in other parts of the city.

“We’ll get better, it’ll be much cleaner,” said Gunn. “All the lessons learned will streamline the process.”

Work on the project is expected to start in early 2019.

Millage rate to stay the same

The council decided, on the recommendation of finance Director Melanie Kruszona, to leave the city’s millage rate at 2.03 mills. The rate has not been changed over the past six years. It is 5.8 percent above the roll-back rate, which is the rate that would be needed to bring in the same amount of revenue as last year. That means the city’s income can be expected to increase in the coming year, due to rising property values.

The council also adopted a budget for the upcoming fiscal year of $5.57 million, Kruszona said. City Manager Rives had taken some items out of the budget, reducing it by $28,800.

The budget contains the general fund of $2.65 million the capital projects fund of $2.85 million and the marina fund of $67,035.

Council member John Pietrowski commended Kruszona “for her hard work” in preparing the budget. Rives thanked Kruszona, plus city staff and council members “for working with us on the budget, and spending a lot more time than we’ve had to in the past.”

The final budget hearing will be Monday, Sept. 17.