Voting on Fire Service Referendum in Bluffs Will be Done by Mail
By Leo Coughlin
BELLEAIR BLUFFS - The referendum set for September 1 on the question of contracting with Largo for fire services is unique in one respect - voters will not go to any polling places.
Instead, the vote will be taken by mail.
And, actually, the language of the referendum question does not refer to Largo at all. But everybody knows that is what it is all about.
The question is simple - "Shall the city of Belleair Bluffs contract with a third party for the provision of primary fire services?"
A referendum is necessary because Chris Arbutine, now mayor, but running for a commission seat in 2000 came up with the idea then of protecting the fire department by making a referendum necessary before it could be abolished.
While September's referendum question does not use the word "abolish," this would be the effect of contracting with Largo, a situation brought about by plain economics.
Originally, the raison d'etre for contracting with Largo was included in the referendum with the words "in order to avoid raising taxes within the city."
This, of course, made it a loaded question, suggesting blatantly to the voters that "y'all better okay this or taxes will go up."
Dave Shimkus, a former member of the commission who left his seat to run against Arbutine for mayor in a losing effort in March but who is still very active, pushed for the idea of removing the tax aspects language from the referendum question.
Shimkus contends, and has put forth figures supporting his position, that the city could indeed keep the fire department without having to raise taxes.
John Hubbard, sitting in last week as city attorney at a "citizens informational meeting" on the fire department's future, backed Shimkus's view and the language was removed.
Hubbard pointed out very correctly that the tax language was another question altogether. Actually, the language of the referendum authorizes negotiations to contract for fire services.
Once negotiations are complete, the City Commission would have to approve any contract. The September vote is the first step along the way.
The balloting by mail has been rarely - if ever - seen in these parts where voting by mail is usually restricted to absentee voters. The procedure is authorized under Florida Statutes.
The deadline for voters to register is August 3. The Supervisor of Elections will conduct the voting by mailing ballots containing the question to all registered voters in Belleair Bluffs on August 12. (Overseas ballots will have gone out on July 13.)
City residents who are not registered to vote have been advised to contact the Supervisor of Elections office.
At the informational meeting last week, residents heard from the Bluffs' current fire chief, Pat Competelli, Largo Fire Chief Mike Wallace, and the commission members.
It became clear that the obvious answer was to contract with Largo. That was brought about because Belleair chose to disengage from its relationship with the Bluffs on the fire department and contract with Largo.
When that income disappeared, it put the Bluffs in an untenable economic situation, according to Arbutine who has vigorously pushed for negotiations with Largo.
In his presentation, Wallace reiterated what he told the commission last month - that service would be of the highest caliber and current members of the Bluffs fire department would be given jobs.
The decision to go with Largo is all about numbers.
While it would cost Belleair Bluffs taxpayers about $750,000 yearly to maintain the fire department (without the income from Belleair) at its current level, the cost to Largo will be $245,000 a year.
Among the large turnout of citizens was John Diller, a former mayor of sainted memory, who gave his blessing to contract with Largo.
Return to Home Page
Return to Current Edition