Lots of issues, but some have lots of questions
By DIANE STEINLE Editor of Editorials
Published March 11, 2007
A local campaign season overshadowed by the statewide debate about property insurance and taxes is about to end.
By Tuesday, Pinellas voters will have to make up their minds about whether to extend the Penny for Pinellas sales tax that for the past 17 years has paid for public infrastructure projects in their cities and county.
Opinions have been exchanged in blogs and letters to the editor, government and religious leaders have spoken their minds, but on Election Day Tuesday, each of us will have to decide whether we are willing to pay that extra 1 cent on the dollar in exchange for necessities like bridges and roads and amenities like libraries and nature preserves.
Also on Tuesday, voters in the North Pinellas cities of Tarpon Springs, Oldsmar, Clearwater, Safety Harbor, Belleair, Belleair Bluffs, Belleair Beach and Indian Rocks Beach will go to the polls to elect commission or council members or mayors.
Residents of Belleair Beach face an important decision about whether to finally eliminate their police department and contract with an outside agency for law enforcement services.
In Clearwater, voters will find two questions on the ballot. One asks voters whether investment restrictions on the city's employee pension plan should be eased in hopes of getting a better return on the investment of those funds. The city has been forced to make extra deposits into the fund because of poor investment performance. City employee unions support the change.
The second question on the Clearwater ballot involves a downtown project, which always seems to inspire controversy.
An organization calling itself Save the Bayfront previously has opposed referendums on downtown projects and also opposes this one. Other local groups and city officials enthusiastically endorse the project, which calls for construction of at least 129 boat slips, transient boat dockage, a promenade, a fishing pier and public restrooms on the Intracoastal Waterway at the base of the downtown bluff. The city planned the project in hopes it would generate some activity downtown.
In letters to the editor, many of our Clearwater readers have asked questions about the boat slip project that they had not seen answered elsewhere. Today seemed a good day to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about this important project that could enliven the downtown waterfront.
Why didn't the City of Clearwater include boat ramps in the proposed boat slips project when so many people are clamoring for ramps?
Big swaths of paved parking lots would have to be built on the waterfront to accommodate boat trailers. People generally want more green space on the waterfront, not more pavement. Also, boat ramps generate a lot more traffic than boat slips.
Why is the city investing $11-million in a project only the wealthy can use?
In its advertising, the organization called Save the Bayfront states that "only 129 wealthy boat owners will benefit from this $11-million project."
That's wrong in several ways.
First, Save the Bayfront's statement grows out of the incorrect assumption that only wealthy people own boats. Second, it implies that the same 129 people will be moored in the 129 slips for the entire 40-year life of the project. Unlikely.
Thirdly, the statement misleads the reader into thinking that the 129 permanent rental slips are the only amenities being built.
The boat slip project has something for everyone. While it will have at least 129 permanent rental slips for boats 30 feet or more in length, it also will have 1,700 feet of overnight side-tie moorings for boats of all sizes and 800 feet of free side-tie moorings for day visits by boaters.
For those who don't own boats, there will be a new low-rise fishing pier; a promenade built on preserved pilings of the old Memorial Causeway drawbridge; the opportunity to walk the docks and look at the boats; and for the first time, permanent public restrooms.
And if the boat slips contribute to increased downtown retail activity, all downtown visitors will benefit.
Why does the city include boat fuel sales in the revenue projections for the boat slip project after city officials said no fuel would be sold there?
The city is emphatic that no fuel will be sold on the bayfront boat docks. However, boaters who are moored there either permanently or temporarily will need to get fuel somewhere. The city predicts many will putter over to the Clearwater Municipal Marina on Clearwater Beach for their fuel, so an estimated increase in marina fuel sales was included in the revenue projections for the bayfront boat docks.
But these are estimates, and there is no way to know how many boaters will go to the city marina across the waterway to buy their fuel.
It's Coachman Park that needs improving. Why isn't the city spending that $11-million to improve the park?
Clearwater voters previously have given a thumbs down to Coachman Park improvement plans, so this project stays away from Coachman Park.
Also, city officials point out that if they borrowed $11-million to improve Coachman Park, there would be no ready source of revenue to pay off the bonds other than property taxes. Slip rentals will be used to pay off the boat docks debt.
The city has decided that the Harborview Center needs to be a part of any discussion about future improvements or expansion of Coachman Park. A task force will be appointed later this year to make recommendations for the Coachman Park/Harborview Center area. If voters approve the extension of the Penny for Pinellas sales tax in Tuesday's election, some of that money will be budgeted for park improvements.
By the way, Save the Bayfront's flier opposing the boat slips project includes this statement: "We want Coachman Park to be for your use, not just the privileged few." It bears repeating: The boat slip project on the ballot Tuesday does not involve Coachman Park.
Why are we voting on boat slips, anyway? The city builds other recreational facilities without asking for permission from the voters. And why does the ballot question say the city charter has to be amended?
The city charter requires that any improvements on the publicly owned bayfront between Drew Street and Pierce Street be approved by the voters. The referendum requirement does not apply to other recreation/open space areas in the city.
The charter provision that applies to the bayfront area must be amended to allow boat docks, the promenade and the restrooms, because the charter currently allows only open space and public utilities there.
Why is the city asking voters about this again? We said no last time we voted.
In 2004, voters said "no" to a plan that would have resulted in a marina, an enlarged and improved Coachman Park, a promenade extending into the Intracoastal Waterway, removal of surface parking lots at the Harborview Center, and construction of a parking garage under the new bridge.
After the referendum failed, the city did some polling and learned that voters were put off by so many items being included in one ballot question.
In Tuesday's referendum, the city focuses only on those items relating to the waterway.
If there is a hurricane soon after the docks are built and they get wiped out, how will the city pay off the $11-million bond used to build them? Will tax dollars have to be used?
The city has property insurance that will cover the docks. The city's coverage includes business interruption insurance, which city officials say could be used to pay the debt service on the bonds if no boat slip rental payments were coming in.
Also, the city's insurance fund has $22-million in reserves that could be used if necessary.
When there is a big event at the Harborview Center or Coachman Park, where will people visiting the docks park?
If parking along the seawall is full, they will have to search for spaces in downtown garages and lots and on city streets, just like everyone else.
Will liveaboards be allowed at the docks?
Permanent liveaboards will be prohibited. Visiting boaters using the overnight side-tie space will be permitted to stay on their boats.
I have a small boat. How much would it cost me to tie up my boat at the docks and eat lunch or dinner downtown?
Nothing except the price of your meal if you use the 800 feet of free side-tie moorings.
What kinds of permits will the city have to get to build the docks if voters approve, and which agencies must grant them?
This question is answered by the city:
"(Consultant) Wade-Trim has been meeting with the relevant permitting agencies in advance of submittal in order to get feedback on the design. We already have a letter of support from the state Department of Transportation, and the Army Corps of Engineers (through the Southwest Florida Water Management District) has seen the proposed design.
"The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has already done a preliminary review and has given favorable feedback. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission will also need to sign off on the project. In addition, approval is needed from Pinellas County and the U.S. Coast Guard.
"A variance will be required from the city's Community Development Board relative to on-site parking, and a second variance will be requested from the Army Corps regarding setbacks from the Intracoastal Waterway. The city's engineers do not believe the setback will be an issue, as there is existing precedent for approval (and) the area is not a commercial channel."