CLEARWATER - The process of seeking citizen support for a ten-year extension to the Penny for Pinellas sales tax took a step forward last week. The City of Clearwater conducted a Town Hall Meeting on Wednesday, soliciting citizen input on the projects that have been proposed for funding from the estimated $138,855,000 proceeds from Penny 3.
The staff-proposed Penny 3 project list had already been influenced by the City Council. A $25-million expansion of Clearwater's Downtown Streetscape project was pared to $12.5-million, the remaining $12.5-million being allocated for traffic calming projects ($5-million), a Senior Facility ($3.5-million) and an expansion of Ruth Eckerd Hall ($4-million).
About fifty citizens attended the two-hour public meeting, which had been well publicized by the city. A broad cross-section of Clearwater's residential neighborhoods was represented, but only Clearwater Beach produced any comments from business interests.
"We want to hear from you, to see if there are any areas that you think we missed, or the reallocation of dollars," said Mayor Frank Hibbard, "We want to make sure that this list is going to stay the way it is for the most partů We want you to feel that the projects that you voted for are going to get completed."
Jim Hess asked how many projects promised during past Penny for Pinellas votes were never completed. Budget Director Tina Wilson responded, explaining that a number of projects were dropped from the first Penny for Pinellas because of a shortfall in revenues. "In the last 10 years, there have been only a few projects," she said, naming the beach Civic Center as one. She later provided a complete list of dropped projects, including Salls Lake Park, Lake Chautauqua Park, North Clearwater Nature Park, Harbor Bluff Waterfront Park, which was defeated in a separate referendum, and Forest Run Park restrooms, which remains an issue with neighborhood residents.
Nelda Gant was concerned with the proposed Senior Center. She said, "a senior facility is not something that they (seniors) prefer to attend, that recreation centers offering programs for seniors is much more acceptable because seniors like to be with people of all ages."
Many projects on Clearwater's current list are in the downtown core, including a $25-million new City Hall, $12.5-million streetscaping, a $6.25-million parking garage and $5-million for Coachman Park improvements. A number of citizens questioned the allocation of such a large percentage of Penny 3 revenue to downtown. One of those was Countryside activist John Wiser.
"Out of the $138-million, close to half of it is dedicated to downtown projects," Wiser said, "I'm really upset that everything is downtown. For the whole second Penny for Pinellas, not one project was in Countryside. We devoted all the money, 90% of it, to projects on the beach or in the downtown area." He argued against the new City Hall, downtown parking garage and streetscaping projects.
Fred Dunn echoed Wiser's concern. "I'm 100% for Pennies for Pinellas," he said. "I agree that you can do some cleaning-up to make it (downtown) look better, but any focus on the center that we talk about as downtown is wasted because you're not going to get a tourist downtown regardless of how much money you spend."
Not everyone agreed with Wiser and Dunn "The downtown, I still feel, is the heart of Clearwater," said Elizabeth France, "The revitalization that is going on there we are excited about."
David Little reminded Council members that a previous commission promised additional beach parking before completion of the new memorial Causeway Bridge, and that the promise has not yet been fulfilled. "I just found out recently that even after the cost of the bridge, the roundabout, and Beach Walk which exceeds $100-million, we will have less parking than we currently have today. It seems to me that we spent all that money as taxpayers; we ought to be entitled to a place to park our vehicles." Little appealed for not one, but two beach parking garages, one on South Beach and one on North Beach.
Former City Commissioner Bob Clark weighed-in on a suggested private/public partnership at the Municipal Marina that would produce a parking garage along with some unspecified redevelopment of the property. "Be wary of giving away one of our City's greatest assets to any private concerns," he cautioned. But he encouraged the Marina's redevelopment, saying, "A new facility there with the right mix of parking and retail would be a jewel for this city both physically and fiscally."
The Council's next step in formulating Clearwater's Penny 3 projects will be a public hearing at their July 20th meeting, when they will approve the list that will be forwarded to Pinellas County. Voters will have their opportunity to vote on Penny 3 in a referendum during the March 2007 general election.
You can view Clearwater's current list of projects proposed for funding by Penny 3 on the City's web site at www.myclearwater.com/gov/depts/omb/docs_pub/penny2_book.pdf.
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