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Belleair Bluffs voters reject tax on utilities

By voting against a utility tax Tuesday, voters sent a message to their local government that they don't want any new taxes.

However, when budget time rolls around in the fall, property owners will be sure to see an increase in their taxes to make up for the amount of money the utility tax could have raised, city officials said Tuesday night after the ballots were counted.

Almost a third of the city's registered voters turned out to have a say on the question of whether the city should tax residents' phone and power bills.

The referendum lost by 29 votes, with 232 residents voting against the tax and 203 voting in favor of it.

Of the city's 1,590 registered voters, 442 turned out. (A few votes weren't counted because they were not punched correctly.)

"I'm really happy to see so many voters coming out," said Mayor John Diller. "I'd have rather seen it go the other way, but I think it says something good about our city that almost 450 voted when there was nothing else on the ballot."

Diller and other commissioners said they were disappointed to see the utility tax fail because it will mean that come budget time next fall, they're going to have to raise property taxes _ something they haven't done in five years.

If the referendum had been successful, residents would have paid an extra 7 percent on their GTE bills and an additional 6 percent on their Florida Power Corp. bills.

Commissioners said a utility tax was fairer to the city's property owners than a property tax.

With a utility tax _ which officials estimated would have raised about $135,000 a year _ the burden of the tax would have gone to all residents, including renters, seasonal visitors, business owners and property owners.

Diller said he thought the economy and Florida Power Corp.'s recent announcement that it anticipates a rate increase next year affected the vote.

"People are really against any new taxes," he said. "But I really did think we'd make it by a few votes. . . . We're going to have to make some changes in the budget and we've told people we'll probably have to raise taxes to do that."