Fire Service Problem In Belleair Bluffs Ignites a Donnybrook
By Leo Coughlin
BELLEAIR BLUFFS – The City Commission meeting Monday night erupted into an old fashioned donnybrook when the subject of the fire department’s situation came up.
Last week, Belleair, an integral part of the financial function of the Belleair Bluffs Fire Department, decided to contract with Largo for fire rescue services.
That immediately takes $500,000 or so out of the Bluffs’ $1.1 million fire budget and leaves the Bluffs financially stranded.
A discussion of what to do was scheduled for Monday night’s commission workshop meeting.
But the situation devolved into a shouting match with Mayor Chris Arbutine the target of criticism from the fire chief, Patrick Competelli, and members of the commission.
Arbutine had explained how he had held discussions with Belleair officials leading up to their final decision last week and how he had tried to retain Belleair in the Bluffs fire district.
Complaints came from commission members that they “were not included” in the discussions. The task of dealing with Belleair belonged to Arbutine.
If Arbutine and another or more members of the commission had trooped over to Belleair for talks it would have constituted a meeting under the way the Sunshine Law is interpreted and that would have required public notice of such a meeting.
In discussing the events that led to the Belleair decision, Arbutine said that he kept Competelli involved. When Competelli got the floor at Monday’s meeting, he disputed Arbutine and there was a lot of hollering and yelling and name calling.
Things reached the point where Competelli was escorted out by the sheriff’s deputy on duty, whereupon Competelli’s wife took up the verbal cudgels and lit into Arbutine calling him, among other things, a “liar.”
When things finally calmed down and Arbutine was once again able to bring the meeting under control the commission mulled over its options which are few and shaky.
One is that to keep the fire department there would have to be a significant millage increase. Another was to work a deal with the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue, located in Indian Rocks Beach, which is most likely very unworkable.
That left the idea of working with Largo.
The Bluffs used to have an agreement with Largo where the bigger city administratively ran the Bluffs department.
One has to understand that underlying the Largo-Bluffs relationship is a mild hostility and resentment. Belleair Bluffs used to be part of the city of Largo and Bluffonians resent any intimation that their town would be enveloped back into the fold of Largo.
But current economic conditions and practicality may dictate a future other than what is ideally desired.
There is one tricky aspect to the fire department situation in the city. In March, 2001, Arbutine advocated and managed to get the voters to approve a referendum that prohibited the City Commission from eliminating or replacing the fire department, or contracting for fire services with another party without a referendum.
So any agreement with Largo – or any entity – in a situation where the Bluffs fire department is dissolved would have to go to referendum.
The Bluffs fire budget is about $1.1 million, with Belleair kicking in about $500,000, the county paying $400,000 for the unincorporated area (Harbor Bluffs and Harbor Hills) and the city itself paying $200,000 or so. Belleair is now gone.
Presumably, if Largo takes over the Bluffs FD, which is likely given the geography and practicality, Belleair Bluffs would make a contract payment to Largo along the lines of what it currently budgets for its fire rescue service.
Under that scenario, Largo would undoubtedly provide fire and rescue service to the unincorporated areas. Largo adjoins much of that area.
Belleair concluded its price shopping for fire rescue service last week when it agreed to accept Largo’s offer of service with a $453,399 contract. Largo Chief Mike Wallace raced back to his city’s commission meeting Tuesday last week to report gleefully that his outfit had won the Belleair contract.
Dave Shimkus, a member of the commission until March when he ran against Arbutine and lost, came up with suggestion Monday night that may be as sensible as anything else being offered.
He advocated a joining of Belleair, Belleair Bluffs, Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, along with the unincorporated areas into one large city.
All the elements are contiguous and it is an old idea that could stand some looking at. As Shimkus pointed out, Belleair could supply police and trash pickup (which it already has), the Bluffs has a business and shopping area and a fire department that could serve such a city, while the others are all totally residential.
With Belleair’s fire service subsumed into Largo, this fits a county ideal of consolidation. There is resistance among the small cities against this.
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