For some Pinellas beach communities its was a year that brought pivotal changes and ongoing controversy. Political shakeups, higher taxes and fees, and threats to the future of cultural icons were among the issues in the news during 2008.
Here are some of the happenings that made headlines:
Tierra Verde Annexation Battle: Resistance to St. Petersburg's recent annexation of a small commercial portion of this unincorporated community continued in varying forms throughout the year. The latest iteration is a push by Pinellas County to have the courts declare the annexation invalid. Residents of the upscale island community are also asking the state Legislature to require any future annexations to include all of Tierra Verde, which would force a voter referendum before any annexation could go into effect.
St. Pete Beach Development Wars: Voter sentiment on development shifted in March with the election of a new mayor and two new commissioners who support a more development-friendly comprehensive plan proposed by a citizens group tied to tourism and hotel interests. Three months later the voters overwhelmingly approved that plan in a citywide referendum. But developers have been slow to react, in part because of the sluggish economy and perhaps more significantly to a deluge of lawsuits challenging the plan. The city is aggressively defending the new development rules, but warns developers to proceed at their own risk in beginning any projects under the new rules pending the outcome of the legal cases.
Treasure Island Threatens Library Funding: Faced with a choice between raising property taxes and abandoning its longtime financial commitment to the Madeira Beach-based Gulf Beaches Public Library, the City Commission chose to cut $107,000 to the library. The action started a tidal wave of controversy that has resulted in the firing of the library director and two other employees, a cutting of library hours and some services, a reorganization of the library board of directors, and threatened lawsuits charging discrimination against the director and one of its laid-off employees. Then the Treasure Island Commission voted to re-join the library at a sharply reduced funding level. The five-town library consortium — Treasure Island, Madeira Beach, Redington Beach, North Redington Beach and Redington Shores — will meet in the coming months to decide how the library will be funded and operate in the future.
Cost of Flushing Toilets Skyrockets: In city after city, the cost of treating sewage — or "wastewater," as some communities prefer to call what is flushed into sewage pipes — increased significantly in recent years. At the same time, past-due maintenance and repair of the aging sewer systems could no longer be neglected. Then city revenues were hit by the steep slide in property values, making it impossible to continue subsidizing sewer system costs with tax dollars. This perfect storm of financial events devastated city budgets and forced many towns and cities to consider major increases in sewer user fees: Gulfport, 22 percent; St. Pete Beach, 30 percent; and Indian Rocks Beach, 60 percent. In contrast, Madeira Beach boosted its reserves to $7.8-million when it decided to sell its sewer system to Pinellas County.
Property Taxes Under Pressure: All beach communities cut their budgets, and some raised taxes significantly to deal with the impact of sharp drops in property values and state revenues and the impact of Amendment 1 on property tax collections. Indian Rocks Beach, facing virtual depletion of its emergency reserves, opted to raise property taxes by about 20 percent and decrease spending, including law enforcement services. Madeira Beach reduced its property tax rate by 10.23 percent from the rollback rate. Treasure Island also lowered property tax revenues by about 8 percent, but at the expense of funding for the Gulf Beaches Public Library, four eliminated staff positions, and across-the-board cuts in department spending. St. Pete Beach sharply reduced its staff and restricted capital improvement projects to only most-needed maintenance items.
Voters Save Madeira Beach Snack Shack: Voters called a halt in March to attempts by the city to tear down the Snack Shack, a log cabin built in the 1930s at Archibald Park. The shack will be rehabilitated and eventually will reopen to the public, but how it will be used is still to be decided.
Redington Pier Name Changed in Political Spat: A long-running battle between the town and the owner of the Redington Long Pier took a very public turn last month when a new sign proclaimed the 50-year-old landmark as the Dubai Long Pier. Owner Tony Antonious said he is angry that safety issues cited by the town and county cost him more than $500,000 and that the town continues to refuse to grant him a permit to build condos in the pier parking lot.