TREASURE ISLAND — The City Commission is seriously considering putting the city more than $5 million in debt to pay for burying power, telephone and cable wires along parts of Gulf Boulevard.
Tuesday, the commission directed City Manager Reid Silverboard to find out how much it would cost to get a "firm" price for the project.
"Most of our community believes in order to beautify our city, undergrounding should be done," said Commissioner Ed Gayton Jr., as he urged the commission not to wait for Pinellas County sales tax money and instead issue city bonds to pay for the multimillion-dollar project.
Last spring, Progress Energy, Verizon and Brighthouse estimated it would cost up to $4.6 million to put their utility lines underground along only one of nearly 5 miles of Gulf Boulevard in the city.
Only three sections of Gulf Boulevard would be affected: about 2,000 feet between 125th and 118th avenues, 3,400 feet between 104th and 99th avenues, and about 500 feet from Harrell Avenue to the Blind Pass Bridge.
In addition to the direct cost of burying the wires, the city must purchase utility easements from businesses and residents along Gulf Boulevard, pay for converting utility meters and restore the roadway and sidewalks.
Those costs could easily add several million more to the total bill, according to Silverboard.
In 2007, Pinellas County voters approved extending the Penny for Pinellas 1-cent sales tax for infrastructure projects, including $35 million for putting utility lines underground and beautifying Gulf Boulevard throughout the county's beach cities.
When the economy tanked, sales tax revenues dropped as well. The county then told beach cities they would get only about $26 million for beautifying Gulf Boulevard — a 25 percent reduction. The county also wants to delay giving that money to the cities by two years, or until 2013.
Tuesday, the Treasure Island City Commission decided it wants its now-estimated $2.83 million share (nearly $900,000 less than originally projected) to be spent to put utility lines underground, or alternatively for new crosswalks, decorative street lighting or renovation of the city's central beach trail.
The project wish list will be combined with similar project wish lists from other beach communities and presented to county officials by the Barrier Islands Governmental Council (BIG-C).
Complicating the city's plans: If the economy does not recover quickly, the county can reduce the total amount of money for the beach communities even more.
If the city decides to do the project sooner and pay for it through a bond issue, it will not know for sure how much, if any, of that cost will be eventually offset by county sales tax revenues.
"We have been talking about this for 20 years now, 20 years. This is the best opportunity we have to beautify our city. I would not be in favor of waiting any longer," Gayton said.
"Mr. Gayton, are you the same guy who voted against the 1-cent-a-day stormwater increase?" Commissioner Alan Bildz asked in surprise.
Gayton, who is a regular critic of what he views as excessive city spending, laughed but did not back off.
Commissioner Carol Coward echoed Gayton's push to bury utility lines underground and pointed to Indian Shores, which has issued some $6 million in bonds to bury its utility lines.
"I would not like to abandon the undergrounding," Coward said. "Every time I drive through Indian Shores, I see how beautiful it looks. Maybe our citizens would like that and would like to see us find some way to get it accomplished."
Mayor Bob Minning agreed with the importance of putting utility lines underground but stressed the commission "has got to figure out a way to pay for it."