BELLEAIR — Town commissioners gathered Aug. 13 to talk about the upcoming budget, and for the first time in recent memory, money was not uppermost on their minds. Instead, they focused on the coronavirus and how it was affecting their everyday lives.
Town Manager J.P. Murphy, in his preamble to the budget discussion, made it clear that the virus left nothing untouched.
“Let there be no doubt that COVID-19 has changed how we do business and interact with the public,” he said. “We’ve seen a major shift in the need to conduct business remotely and be more responsive electronically.”
Ever since the stay-at-home orders were issued in March, Belleair has held all its meetings virtually using Zoom. At the Aug. 13 workshop, only Murphy, Vice-Mayor Karla Rettstatt and Commissioner Tom Kurey were at Town Hall, while others participated from home.
The clearest example of how the virus affected the budget was on the revenue side of the ledger. Murphy said revenues from sales tax and other use-based taxes were down by just over $300,000. On the plus side, property values increased, which meant an increase in the ad valorem taxes by $300,000.
While Murphy made it clear that services to the residents of the community will not be affected in the year ahead, changes had to be made within the structure of the town to make that happen.
Among those changes is a staff reduction of one, a freeze on other staff activity and a reduction in professional services across all town departments.
“We were already engaged in providing more e-Town Hall solutions like online permitting, remote citizen participation as well as the provision of self-service payment options,” he said. “Our staff are creating innovative ways to educate, recreate, and engage our citizens in ways that keep people safe. There is some uncertainty in what participation will be like, but we’re going to be very diligent about cleaning, sanitization and social distancing protocols whatever it takes to keep our residents out of harm’s way.”
Murphy stressed the need for the police department to be kept safe during the pandemic. Achieving that goal will mean more spending, another way COVID-19 is affecting the town.
“Our first responders in the police department will continue to need a steady stream of personal protective equipment,” he said. “While the safety and security of our residents are of the highest priority, so too is it a high priority to ensure our public employees are secure in carrying out their missions. You will see some increases in funding for cleaning supplies, PPE, computer systems and leased capital equipment to this end.”
Police Chief Rick Doyle said his department was doing its share of keeping expenses in check, achieving that by doing their jobs properly.
“For the second year in a row crime is down in our town,” he said. “This means a saving. For example, we lowered our payments to the Sheriff’s Office from $4,000 to $3,000 for help with fingerprinting and crime scene investigations and the like,” he said.
Doyle also talked about the increased overtime that had to be paid to officers for events such as the recent presidential visit and the threat of civil unrest. He also appealed to residents to be careful of scams and he was particularly wary of scammers who ask residents to send money overseas to help a missing relative.
“These scammers get tens of thousands of dollars this way,” he said. “In one case a man was ready to send $40,000; we were able to help.”
Looking ahead, Doyle said the No. 1 priority was simple.
“The first thing is to make it out of 2020,” he said. “Get this year over with.”
The virus also had a major effect on the town’s Recreation Department. The “Rec” is the cornerstone of Belleair, with a facility unlike many others for a town its size.
Recreation Director Ricky Allison noted that revenues of his department went down $50,000, from $553,000 to $503,000.
The iconic Sunday concerts were all canceled, which meant a loss of revenue, as were many programs such as summer camps and sports leagues. Allison was proud of the fact that his people were able to reopen some of the activity and get 40 or 50 kids back to the rec center.
“I can’t say enough about the staff,” he said.
On the down side of that, there will be no teenage camps or activities. Rettstatt explained why she was against such programs.
“Teenagers just have a need to flock together,” she said. “It is impossible for them to keep a social distance so it wouldn’t be safe.”
Looking ahead, Allison said the Sunday Concerts will be replaced by select movie nights with a limited number of participants.
By far, most of the discussion at the budget workshop centered around the coronavirus. Almost lost in the discussion was perhaps the best news of the evening.
Saying that the town was able to hold fast at the 6.5 millage rate, Murphy said that meant there was positive news.
“The good news is that we do have a balanced budget,” he said.
The proposed budget includes just over $7 million in the general fund.
Two more public meetings dealing with the budget will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 3 and Sept. 17.