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New street light fee could be levied in Safety Harbor next year

SAFETY HARBOR — Late into Monday night's City Commission meeting, Mayor Andy Steingold revived talk of a new street light fee that some fear will be a regressive tax.

"You either do it now or forever hold your peace," he said, worrying that state regulations will make it more difficult for municipalities to impose special fees in the future.

The move was a turnaround from a July budget workshop. Then, city commissioners had discarded the fee proposal, which would charge $4.50 monthly to homeowners who live along lighted public streets.

On Monday night, most city commissioners seemed reluctant to support the street light fee. But they agreed to revisit the discussion at another workshop, likely to be scheduled for next week.

"We still need to talk about it," City Commissioner Nina Bandoni said. "It's obvious."

City commissioners are trying to find ways to make up a projected shortfall in the street light fund next year. Safety Harbor needs to cover annual street light operating expenses of about $275,000. The possible fee could generate $288,000 for the fund, so the city would not need to pay for street lights through its general fund. That would relieve some of the toll on reserve funds.

The city is looking at having to pull up to $775,000 from reserves to balance the 2012-2013 budget. However, commissioners are considering options to lower that figure.

In July, only Vice Mayor Joe Ayoub wanted the street light fee. The City Commission decided to move forward with property tax rate increase in lieu of implementing the fee.

But at the end of Monday's meeting, it appeared not enough commissioners want that hiked millage rate of 3.8845. Because it's so much higher than this year's rate of 3.3808, the proposed rate would require four votes to pass.

A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed, nonexempt property value. The owner of a home valued at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption would have paid $338.08 under this year's rate and would pay $388.45 under the proposed 2013 rate.

On the other side, only Ayoub and Steingold favored the street light fee, which would need three votes to pass.

"We might be at a stalemate," Ayoub said.

Commissioner Nancy Besore likened the street light fee to St. Petersburg's controversial proposed fire fee. Seen as a regressive tax, some argue flat fees — unlike property taxes — would disproportionately charge lower-income property owners.

"Any change in my position would require a strenuous argument," Besore said.

Both she and Steingold were concerned about burdening homeowners with too many additional costs next year, between the possible new street light fee, possible higher millage rate and proposed increased stormwater rate.

Commissioners need to decide whether to implement the fee and where to set the millage rate before public hearings in September.

In other business at Monday's meeting:

• No residents spoke at the first public hearing for a proposed stormwater utility rate of $7.25 monthly for most homes, an increase over this year's $5 rate. City commissioners voted 4-1 to approve it, with Steingold against it. He later said he would rather see a smaller rate increase. The matter goes to a second public hearing Sept. 4.

• City commissioners postponed a discussion on repairing Bishop Creek. They are waiting for the city attorney to provide an opinion memo on the city's legal obligations and for the city staff to put together a stormwater policy. That's expected to be ready at the next meeting.

• City commissioners declined to pursue an ordinance to allow golf carts on certain city streets. An informal online survey showed 67 percent of respondents liked the idea, but commissioners voiced several safety concerns. Ayoub, Steingold and Commissioner Cliff Merz didn't want to consider it.

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.

New street light fee could be levied in Safety Harbor next year 08/21/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 21, 2012 7:15pm]

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