DUNEDIN — Weeks after Pinehurst Road residents loudly struck down city plans for a bicycle path in their neighborhood, the City Commission is studying whether to transfer the money to another area project they say would promote child safety.
Commissioners voted unanimously in July to kill the controversial proposal to widen the sidewalks near Dunedin High and install an 8-foot-wide trail for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Residents said the project — to be funded by a $266,000 federal Safe Routes to School grant as well as $181,000 in city funds — would have meant messy construction and more traffic woes. They said they rarely saw children biking to school and feared more golf carts would use the added sidewalk space than pedestrians. They also questioned the city's wisdom in spending so much money during these tough economic times.
Recent correspondence with the Florida Department of Transportation has revealed that Dunedin officials can't redirect the grant money to a project in another part of the city, Public Works Director Doug Hutchens told commissioners during their Thursday meeting.
Hutchens said the city has two options: Give the money back to FDOT or use it to build bike lanes along Pinehurst.
Hutchens recommended returning the money, because the cost of widening the road shoulder to install four-foot bike lanes on each side of Pinehurst would require the city itself to come up with an additional $233,959, potentially jeopardizing other roadwork.
Hutchens said the city will present its citywide master pedestrian and bicycle plan in February, and could always find another grant later.
But commissioners said they'd feel silly if they gave the money back and realized they needed it later. And upon hearing that it's illegal to ride bikes on sidewalks, officials also became concerned that the area's lack of bike lanes was forcing bicyclists — especially schoolchildren — to either break the law or compete with high-speed traffic.
"I'd like to postpone this to the next meeting to get a deadline (from FDOT), firm up costs and ... have more on this bike-on-sidewalk thing," Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said Thursday. "Maybe there's a little wiggle room to get that master plan and figure out if (using the money for bike lanes is) the best option for us."
The matter is next set for discussion on Oct. 6.
In other action...
• The City Commission adopted a $79.8 million budget as well as a $1.40 monthly increase in the stormwater rate, which staff said will generate funds for ongoing drainage projects. Both passed 4-1, with Commissioner Julie Scales dissenting.
In unanimous votes, the commission passed 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.
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.
The new budget year starts Oct. 1.
•The City Commission unanimously approved a firefighter pension ordinance change, despite fire union officials' pleas that they and city negotiators go back to the bargaining table.
The revised ordinance dictates that the city will now give firefighters 100 percent of future pension reserve money, after the state sided with firefighters that the city's proposal to give firefighters only 75 percent was illegal.
But firefighters are also upset about another part of the ordinance that immediately awards an initial pot of $832,000 in pension tax credits to the city. Firefighters say the city promised them half the $832,000 during contract negotiations, but later denied the benefit.
Fire officials argued Thursday that Dunedin changed its ordinance to correct the flaw over future monies, so officials are required by law to reopen negotiations on the entire ordinance.
Commissioners said they sympathized with firefighters on this "complex issue." But they ultimately decided to follow the advice of their attorney, who said the ordinance was ratified by the union months ago and only one part was changed at the direction of the state. Commissioner David Carson advised firefighters to file a complaint with a higher authority to seek clarification.
•Merchants can now use logo-bearing outdoor dining-area umbrellas, vehicle wrap signs and — with a few restrictions — flutter signs and sign-toting mascots to advertise under a new ordinance crafted to battle a weak economy. Commissioners voted 5-0 to temporarily allow exemptions on certain types of signs when the county unemployment rate hits 7 percent or higher.
•Commissioners also renewed the city's Jolley Trolley contract for another year in a 5-0 vote. Dunedin will contribute $15,738 of the total $306,020 to keep the trolley's North Pinellas route running Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, 2012.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.