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2015 Issues to Watch: Underground utilities

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  • | 11:00 p.m. January 6, 2015
Commissioners will decide in February whether a referenda to bury above-ground utilities Key-wide will be presented to the voters. File photo
Commissioners will decide in February whether a referenda to bury above-ground utilities Key-wide will be presented to the voters. File photo
  • Longboat Key
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The year 2015 could be the one in which the Longboat Key electorate flips the power switch for a multimillion-dollar underground utilities project. Or it could be the year it cuts the power to the discussion for good.

The town has until April 1 to get ballot language to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office for an underground utilities ordinance that would allow registered voters to decide in August via a mail-in ballot whether to bury the island’s utilities.

That deadline, though, is likely to come and go.

Town Manager Dave Bullock and Assistant Town Manager Anne Ross will bring new information to the Longboat Key Town Commission in February about plans to bury power lines and other utilities. The commission will most likely need to review that information before it can pass ordinances on first and second reading approving language for mail-in ballots.

The timing means that the referenda questions are most likely to go to voters in the regular November election.

The commission decided against an ordinance that would have placed two underground referenda questions before the voters on the March 10 ballot, choosing instead to have Bullock return with new information about the feasibility of burying utilities island-wide instead of just on Gulf of Mexico Drive, as previously proposed.

So far, the town has approved spending up to $50,000 for an engineering study by Brannon & Gillespie LLC and up to $30,000 for staff to evaluate other options for underground utilities.

Last year was an on-again off-again year for a power pole discussion that’s been percolating at Town Hall for more than 20 years.

At a November special meeting, four out of six commissioners in attendance voted against an ordinance on second reading that would have placed referenda on the March 10 ballot asking voters to approve bonds of no more than $19 million to bury utilities along Gulf of Mexico Drive and no more than $5 million to help neighborhoods with costs for undergrounding utilities in individual neighborhoods.

Although more than 40 residents in attendance at the November meeting agreed that an undergrounding utilities plan was the right decision, they expressed a desire to hold off until the commission could bring island-wide underground utilities to voters.

The majority of the commission cited a need to get it done correctly the first time and a need to know what that the cost would be to bury utilities island-wide. The town will save money if it lumps the entire project together, but the savings are currently unknown. Mayor Jim Brown stressed the need to develop an equitable cost-sharing formula to allow those who live in neighborhoods that already have underground utilities to pay less for the potential island-wide project.

Some commissioners expressed concern many residents would vote down the GMD undergrounding project if the entire island was not included in the project.

Ross said options that will be presented next month include a variety of island-wide scenarios and cost estimates.

“We’ll give commissioners options to bury everything, including utilities on side streets,” Ross said. “We’ll also have referenda options available that include funding options with ad-valorem dollars and with non ad-valorem dollars.”

The consultant, Ross said, will also have “hard firm costs for undergrounding the entire island.”

The issue: For more than 20 years, the town of Longboat Key has debated whether to bury power poles and other utilities underground to make the island more aesthetically pleasing. The issue came into the forefront in a big way in 2014, with a referendum being formulated to put the multimillion-dollar issue before the town’s electorate.

Why you should care: If they approve a referendum this year, voters will decide whether they want to pay for it through means of either ad valorem or non-ad valorem assessments via their tax bills.

Timeline: In February, the Town Commission will hear more cost options and breakdowns about burying what’s left of the island’s above-ground utilities.




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