TREASURE ISLAND — The City Commission faces a major decision Tuesday — whether to raise property tax rates by about 16 percent.
The money is not needed to run the city — the proposed $18 million 2011-2012 budget reviewed by the commission two weeks ago actually calls for less spending next year.
But the city does need to raise nearly $4 million to replace the aging 50-plus-year-old bridges connecting the Isle of Palms and Isle of Capri, where nearly half the city's population lives.
"We have got to get the bridges built in the next three to five years," said City Manager Reid Silverboard. "We really don't have time to wait."
The Capri bridge was built in 1956 and the Palms bridge in 1958. Both were built by the islands' developers.
"They are functionally obsolete and showing their age," Public Works director Jim Murphy said Tuesday.
Within the past year, the city spent about $85,000 on repairs to the two bridges.
Murphy said that if they are not replaced, the city needs to spend about $1 million on major repairs, which would extend their usable life only another 10 years.
New bridges would have a life span of about 50 years.
Last week, a financial consultant, Jeff Larson, discussed with the commission several financing options not only for replacing the bridges, but also for the proposed central beach trail and for putting overhead utilities underground along Gulf Boulevard.
The city needs about $1.5 million to build the central beach trail, a 15-block-long pedestrian and bicycle trail along the city's beachfront.
Graham-Booth Landscape Architecture was recently awarded a $200,000 contract to design and manage construction of the trail.
Another pending project — putting utilities underground along Gulf Boulevard — will be paid for mostly out of the city's $3.7 million share of $35 million in Penny for Pinellas sales tax money.
That money would be received in annual increments over a number of years. The city is considering borrowing money against that revenue so that the project can be done sooner.
Larson cautioned the commission that banks may require the city to keep about $3 million as a cushion in case the sales tax revenues from the county are less than expected. That loan would not require a property tax increase.
He did recommend, however, that the city seek a bank loan for the $3.9 million bridge project. That loan that would be backed by some of the city's utility taxes.
Since those taxes are now used to help pay for daily operations of the city, they would have to be replaced with another source of income.
That source would be a 0.45 mill hike in property taxes, Larson said, which would have to be levied for between 15 and 30 years, depending on the length of the loan.
If approved, the city's current millage rate of 2.6868 mills would increase to 3.1368 mills — or about an $80 higher bill for a home taxed on a $200,000 value after exemptions.
"Wow, that is a big tax increase," Commissioner Alan Bildz said, adding "We have never had a millage rate in the threes."
The commission has to decide by Tuesday because that is the last commission meeting before the city must report a tentative millage rate to the Pinellas County property appraiser.
If the tax hike is approved, it would not be final until September, when the commission holds two public hearings on next year's budget. The property tax rate, as well as the proposed budget, can be changed at that time.
"It's a decision we have to make," Mayor Bob Minning said after listening to Larson's presentation last week.