CLEARWATER — Power lines are a fact of modern life, but boy, can they be ugly. And on a Florida island, they can be particularly vulnerable to hurricane-force winds.
That's why residents of the Island Estates community are pushing for Clearwater to move the community's power grid underground.
Island Estates, one of the wealthiest parts of Clearwater, wants the city to use Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenues to pay for the project. Residents point out that their island has never gotten any Penny-funded improvements or public buildings that can be found in other parts of the city.
They also argue that hiding the power lines would eventually pay for itself, because a beautified island would lead to higher property values and higher property taxes.
Clearwater leaders are balking for a couple of reasons. Mainly, they suspect that if they do this for Island Estates, then everyone else in Clearwater will want their power lines underground, and that would be way too expensive. Officials worry that Sand Key, where residents paid the full cost of burying their own power lines, would want money back.
Aside from that, there's debate over the benefits of putting power lines underground. Electric companies claim the high cost of burying them and repairing them cancels out the advantages. The cost of burying lines ranges from $250,000 to $1 million per mile, depending on factors like population density. That's 10 times more expensive than putting lines on poles.
"There are pros and cons. Underground lines tend to have fewer outages. But when we have an outage, it takes longer to find the location and repair it than with a traditional overhead line," said Progress Energy spokeswoman Suzanne Grant. "Underground lines are less susceptible to wind damage. But storm-related flooding, especially with saltwater, can knock them out."
Getting its fair share
Still, underground utilities have become popular among Pinellas County's beaches and waterfront communities. Buried lines are less likely to be damaged by storms, and they're more aesthetically pleasing.
Several local beach towns — Madeira Beach, Indian Shores, Redington Shores and North Redington Beach — have buried utility lines along some of their streets.
Island Estates has wanted underground lines for a long time. Arnie Shal, a board member of the Island Estates Civic Association, recently made the case to the Clearwater City Council.
"In our entire 50-year existence, the City Council cannot point to a single significant investment in Island Estates. We're nothing but your neighborhood ATM," Shal said. "We have none of the amenities of other neighborhoods. … We could just as well be a colony of Pittsburgh."
Clearwater has been getting a share of Penny for Pinellas funds since the county's 1-cent sales tax started in 1990. That money gets divvied up based on each city's population.
Shal said that with Island Estates' population of 3,200, it would have received $7 million in Penny taxes by now if it were an independent city. "We are the poster child for how Penny funds are not properly distributed," he said.
The City Council disagreed.
"Not every neighborhood in Clearwater and Pinellas County receives Penny dollars. Penny projects generally are more of a regional nature," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. He added that Island Estates benefits from Penny projects like the Memorial Causeway Bridge and the Clearwater Beach Recreation Center.
Council member Paul Gibson said the island benefits from fire engines and police cars the Penny paid for, as well as fire stations in downtown Clearwater and Clearwater Beach that will be soon be renovated with Penny taxes.
For his part, Shal says that many Penny projects are local in nature.
Sand Key comparison
The city also wonders how Sand Key would react if Clearwater starts paying to bury power lines in other neighborhoods. Council member George Cretekos, who lives on Sand Key, thinks his neighbors would probably want to be reimbursed.
Sand Key, another wealthy part of Clearwater, got underground utilities in the mid 1990s at a cost of about $900,000. That barrier island's residents voluntarily assessed themselves to make it happen. They had to pay about $300 each.
That was relatively cheap. It's because Sand Key is densely populated, with a row of condo high-rises lining a single boulevard. There aren't that many power lines to begin with.
It would cost more to bury the power grid in Island Estates, which has more individual houses on more side streets. Twelve years ago, the city estimated that the job would cost more than $3 million and that each resident would have to pay $1,100 to $1,950, depending on various factors.
Currently, the City Council is saying that Clearwater will never pay the full cost of the project and that Island Estates residents would have to chip in a share of the money.
So the ball is back in Island Estates' court.
The island's Civic Association has already invested $2,000 in a preliminary study of the job. It will discuss how to proceed in a couple of weeks.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.