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Plug pulled on county electric bill tax

The 6 percent tax would have paid to light streets. The county wanted to start it by Oct. 1, but Florida Power felt rushed. Many residents are relieved.

The county's proposed 6 percent tax on the electric bills of Pinellas County's unincorporated residents is dead.

More than 100 residents called, e-mailed and wrote to county commissioners during the past several months to oppose the tax. But in the end, the fee died at the hands of Florida Power, county commissioners say.

Commissioners expected to use the money raised by the tax to light neighborhoods and arterial roads. They needed Florida Power to collect the money, but the electric company balked at how quickly commissioners wanted to implement the tax.

Commissioners were hoping to have it in place by Oct. 1, the start of the new budget year. In a letter Tuesday to interim County Administrator Gay Lancaster, Florida Power's chief executive officer said meeting that deadline would be impossible.

"As you might imagine, our customers are very concerned about anything that causes an increase in their electric bills, and the St. Petersburg Times has already stated its opposition to the imposition of this fee," CEO Joseph Richardson wrote. "Since this is a major policy change for our county and our customers, we feel that time is needed to allow for public comment and input with respect to this issue."

Commissioner Bob Stewart had not seen the letter late Tuesday, but he said Florida Power's unwillingness to collect the fee effectively killed the county's plans to use the money to light neighborhoods and arterial roads.

"I was surprised and very disappointed with Florida Power's response," said Stewart, who said the county might dip into contingency funds to make up the money. "That's going to make us skate on very, very thin ice for the next year."

The 6 percent surcharge seemed a done deal when commissioners approved the 2000-01 budget during their Aug. 29 meeting. Although they intended to hold a separate hearing about the tax on Sept. 19, the approved budget included $13.4-million raised by the tax. Of that, the county expected to actually collect $12.7-million, or 95 percent.

About $7.2-million would have been used to light roads. The remaining money would have offset a small decrease in the property tax rate for those living in unincorporated Pinellas.

The lighting projects now will be canceled. But since the tax rate has already been set, the county will have to find about $5.5-million somewhere in its budget to make up the shortfall.

If that money is pulled from the contingency fund, that leaves only about $2.2-million in that fund, Stewart said.

Florida Power officials said they did not oppose adding the 6 percent fee to electric bills, although they have not done that for any other county in their service area. But they wanted more time to work out the logistics, said company spokeswoman Melanie Forbrick.

Stewart said the county warned Florida Power months ago that it planned to enact the fee.

"We started discussions with Florida Power on an informal basis in May," he said. "They've been aware of it. This was not a surprise."

It was good news to residents, who sent 14 letters and 17 e-mails to commissioners and made 131 phone calls to their offices expressing opposition to the fee.

Sharon Richardson, who lives near Seminole, was about to go door-to-door with fliers urging residents to oppose the tax during the Sept. 19 hearing when she heard the issue was moot Tuesday morning:

"That's what we want to hear," said Richardson, who had urged county commissioners during their meeting two weeks ago not to pass the budget with the $13.4-million in it.

"I kind of felt beaten when they okayed the budget," she said. "I said, "This is signed, sealed and delivered.' "

Residents throughout the county were relieved.

"I'm glad to hear that news," said George Lambousis of Palm Harbor.

"Well, thank goodness," said Abram Yarger, who lives near Largo. "I think it's a stupid way to do it anyway. If people want lights, let them pay for it, not have the whole county pay for it."

Currently, if residents want their street lighted, they must have support from at least 50 percent of the homeowners, who then have to pay yearly assessments for having the lights installed and maintained. Under that plan, 303 neighborhoods have agreed to pay for lights. Each homeowner pays an average assessment of $30 per year.

County officials had hoped that the electric bill tax would provide a consistent stream of income so all the neighborhoods, as well as major arterial roads, could be lit. But that tax would have cost the average electric customer nearly $71 a year.