Editor's note: Clearwater City Council member George Cretekos wrote the following column after the announcement that the Clearwater islands of Sand Key, Clearwater Beach and Island Estates have formed a group called the Islands Independence Initiative to study whether seceding from Clearwater and starting their own city is an option for those communities.
During my conversations with the members of the Islands Independence Initiative, I believe they understood that a City Council member's first responsibility is to the city of Clearwater. I appreciate that consideration, because I know they are disappointed in my advice that they take a more active role in this community we call home to strengthen Clearwater, not to divide it.
Consequently, I find myself questioning their decision to explore self-governance, and I ask, "Would secession make for a better city or better government based on the arguments presented?"
It is true that beach property owners pay 40 percent of the Clearwater property tax. Waterfront property is more valuable, and under Florida law all property in a city must be taxed at the same millage rate.
Moreover, if the efforts of the initiative group are successful, and even if the three island property valuations are equal, each island neighborhood would still pay 33 1/3 percent of the new city's property tax. A more likely scenario, however, is that one of the neighborhoods would pay an even larger percentage and not receive the same quality of municipal service that Clearwater provides.
Another argument raised by the initiative group is its disappointment in the city's decision not to fund the undergrounding of some utility lines. What neighborhood would not want the city to fund this type of project? I also wonder why some would want to secede over this issue when Sand Key residents not only helped pay for underground utilities on Gulf Boulevard but also arranged to help pay for the dredging of Clearwater Pass to provide sand for beach renourishment — years before any county, state or federal funds became available.
Frustration is also being expressed over code enforcement and zoning issues. Again, are the aggravations unique to these neighborhoods or to Clearwater? Probably not. The city must work within its charter and within the judicial process to attempt to provide a resolution. Yes, there have been failures, and far fewer successes than members of the initiative group would like.
On the other hand, some may argue that it is not a city's responsibility to protect one property owner's view over another's right to use his property. Others may say neighborhood disputes should be resolved by compromise instead of by court verdicts.
No doubt answers to these questions may be as elusive as why a parking garage still is not built on Clearwater Beach. Anyone who has followed this debate over the years realizes that no lack of decision has plagued city councils more. I do not believe this is a philosophical difference between the islands and the city, but rather an attempt to do what is in the city's best interest.
Nonetheless, the basic question remains: Is self-governance a better solution?
As a lifelong resident of Pinellas County and a Sand Key property owner since 1976, I have always considered Clearwater to be one of Florida's premier communities. This city has warmth. It has diversity. This city is part of the most densely populated county in Florida, yet it has richness, character and a small-town flavor that can be cherished by each of us. Clearwater may not be unique, but it is special.
Therefore, as the discussions continue among the beach neighborhoods and throughout the city or among those reviewing public safety or public utilities, parks and recreation or library services, taxes or codes, I am confident that each resident, in his own way, will find that being in Clearwater and being a part of Clearwater remains the best deal, the best opportunity and the best answer.
George Cretekos is a Clearwater City Council member and a resident of Sand Key.