DUNEDIN — The City Commission gave preliminary approval Thursday to an ordinance that would loosen sign restrictions for merchants who say they're struggling to attract business.
The proposed ordinance would allow merchants to advertise through use of vehicle wrap signs, sign-toting mascots and outdoor dining-area umbrellas bearing the businesses' name — methods previously deemed too tacky or distracting to motorists.
The city staff had suggested ways to relax the sign rules, but commissioners made a few tweaks to the staff recommendation.
Business mascots wouldn't be allowed downtown, where officials say they don't fit the area's "ambience."
After some debate, commissioners also adopted a citizen advisory board's recommendation to allow flutter flags. The commission, however, decided to limit the flags' use in multitenant business complexes to avoid clutter.
The sign exemptions, to be tried out on a test run over the next year, would only go into effect when the county unemployment rate hits 7 percent or higher. Staff had suggested 8 percent as the threshold.
"We want to do whatever we can to help the retail businesses during these difficult times," Mayor Dave Eggers said. "I think it's nice to have a little flexibility in the system. Nobody in the community wants a lot of closed stores."
A second public hearing and final vote is set for Sept. 22.
In other action …
The City Commission held the first of two public hearings on the proposed 2012 budget Thursday.
Commissioners voted 3-1 to give preliminary approval to the $79.8 million budget as well as a $1.40 monthly increase to the stormwater rate, which staff said will generate funds for ongoing drainage projects.
The city plans to use $334,000 of its surplus reserves to fund a 5 percent reduction in the property tax rate, bringing it down to $3.38 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property value. That would mean a resident who had a $100,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption would see a tax bill of $169, which is $8.99 less than last year.
Commissioners gave unanimous preliminary approval to the water, trash and property tax rates. The $17.10 monthly trash rate and the water rate, which varies based on usage, would stay the same.
Commissioner Julie Scales cast the lone dissenting vote on the budget and the increase in the stormwater rate.
A second public hearing and final vote on the budget is set for 7 p.m. Sept. 22.
Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski was absent Thursday due to illness.
In a 4-0 vote, commissioners also approved $1,000 one-time bonuses and 1 percent pay raises for all city employees except firefighters, who will negotiate through their union. The city will also set aside $28,000 of next year's budget to adjust the salaries of employees who have taken on major increases in duties.
Art Leasure, the only resident to speak during the public hearing, called the size of the bonuses "a slap in the face" for employees. He said he was "embarrassed" that the city appears to not "fully value" employees who have maintained service despite dozens of layoffs and rising retirement and health insurance costs.
Commissioners countered that nearby cities offered very little, if anything, in the way of bonuses or raises this year.
Thursday's vote on the bonuses was final because the employee pay plan is not based on an ordinance, which would require two separate votes.
Commissioners also voted unanimously to give the developers of the Gateway Project at Main Street and Milwaukee Avenue six more months to get started. The developers said the economy has hindered efforts to find tenants, but they have seen more interest in recent months.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.