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Amid angst, street light fee approved in Safety Harbor

SAFETY HARBOR — It may be unfair, but it was the best solution the city could come up with.

Most property owners will have to shell out $50.97 over the next year to cover the cost of public street lights.

The charge will appear on utility bills for people who live on roads with street lights that the city leases from Progress Energy. The fee will not be assessed on those who live on unlighted streets, those whose homeowners associations pay for public street lights, or those who live on private streets.

"You never get anything perfect, that's going to be perfectly fair," said Vice Mayor Joe Ayoub during the City Commission's final approval of the special assessment Monday night.

Some residents complained about what they see as a regressive tax on a public good — a flat cost disproportionate to people's differing financial circumstances. And the fee stays the same even though some roads have more street lights than others, they argued.

The city is imposing the special assessment to make up for a shortfall in the street light fund. At first, developers' fees fueled the fund. But the fund diminished over the years as construction slowed, and the city had to transfer money into it from other places. Faced with the inevitability of the fund zeroing out in 2013, the city began considering new revenue sources to pay for the poles leased from Progress Energy, which cost about $300,000 annually.

Initial discussions in the spring produced two possible options: implementing the new street light fee or hiking the property tax rate. But not enough commissioners supported a significant increase in the tax rate.

Just as commissioners argued unfairness in the street light fee Monday, they also pointed out unfairness in the alternative: that collecting money for street lights through property taxes would "double-charge" residents who were already paying for street lights through private means.

Saying they were open to re-evaluating the street light strategy in the next budget cycle, commissioners decided in two 3-2 votes to implement the fee at $50.97 for this fiscal year, which started Oct. 1. Commissioners Nina Bandoni and Nancy Besore continued their opposition to the fee.

• • •

Also at Monday night's meeting, the city terminated a development agreement for a potential office building at Cedar Street and McMullen-Booth Road. The one-year agreement inked in 2010 changed the property's zoning and land use for construction — except nothing was ever built.

The property owner hasn't been able to find a new developer.

After a six-month extension of the agreement earlier this year, neighbors pleaded with the city to crack down on the property, currently a storage facility that they say has evolved into a nuisance causing creek erosion.

Commissioners seemed peeved that the property owner, Paul McMullen, didn't attend the public hearing. They nixed the development agreement 4-1. Ayoub disagreed, worrying that dissolving the agreement would make it harder to market the property.

In other business, commissioners praised a proposed lease-to-own agreement for a former school site on Elm Street, a $250,000 deal to be paid over 50 years that will net the city more park space.

Also, changes to an ordinance regulating the location of group homes unanimously passed its final vote Monday night, a move likely to signal the end of a federal Justice Department investigation of the city. Federal officials viewed the city's restrictions on small residential care facilities as discriminatory toward people with disabilities.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or swang@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Amid angst, street light fee approved in Safety Harbor 12/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 7:12pm]

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