SHCC proposes millage increase to help pay for Baranoff Oak properties

Safety Harbor officials suggested raising the millage rate to help purchase four downtown lots that are home to the historic Baranoff Oak tree, said to be one of the oldest such trees in the state of Florida.

Safety Harbor residents take pride in calling their community “Tree City USA.”

Soon they could be asked to put their money where their trunks are.

The Safety Harbor City Commission floated the idea on Monday of increasing the city’s millage rate on a temporary basis to help offset the cost of purchasing four lots on Main Street and Second Avenue North, including the parcel that is home to the historic Baranoff Oak tree.

According to City Manager Matt Spoor, who last month was authorized to enter discussions with the property owner, the owners agreed to pair of options regarding the sale of the land.

“I talked to the property owners last week,” Spoor told the commissioners near the conclusion of their May 7 meeting, “and we’ve negotiated, so far, two options: a straight purchase of the property, which would include the tree and the lots on Main Street, for a million dollars or…a three-year purchase option” of payments spread out over three years totaling $1.1 million, with 50 percent due up front.

Safety Harbor City Manager Matt Spoor.

Spoor said if the commission wanted to move forward with the purchase this budget year, “we need to find where we’re gonna get the revenue from,” adding there were only a few possibilities: General Fund reserves, take out a loan, or increase the millage rate to pay for the purchase price of the property.

The news was met with silence from the commission, although the proposed price couldn’t have come as much of a surprise.

The cost is comparable to similar properties in the area, according to Spoor, including the vacant lot across the street that was purchased by Bay to Bay Properties last fall.

After absorbing the news, the five commissioners began to discuss ways to facilitate the purchase, with suggestions including using parkland funds, selling city properties, or applying for grants.

When those suggestions were dismissed for various reasons, the talk returned to the millage raise, with the mayor noting the importance of the property as a valid reason to ask citizens if they would be willing to support the temporary, directed rate increase.

“This property has received a lot of attention over the years,” Ayoub said.

Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub.

“It is an expensive piece of property, but it’s got the Baranoff Oak, it’s the last piece of greenspace on Main Street and I would like to see us take some kind of action.”

Commissioner Nancy Besore suggested keeping their options, including taking from reserves, open,  while Spoor suggested paying for the property up front using reserves and pay the city back through the millage increase, thus saving $100,000.

“I think we right now we just need to get the idea out, because personally, I don’t know if I want to take everything out of reserves, because that will really leave that on the low end,” the mayor replied.

Commissioner Cliff Merz asked for a rough estimate of how much of an increase residents would be faced with, and Spoor said they could expect a bump of $30-$50 a year based on quick calculations using an average home value of $150,000.

“The lower end would be if you stretched it our over four or five years, and the higher end would be if you stretched it out over two to three years,” he said.

Ultimately, the commissioners instructed the City Manager to bring back some options using hard figures, while the mayor reiterated his request to seek public input on the subject.

The historic Baranoff Oak tree in downtown Safety Harbor is estimated to be between 300-500 years old, making one of the oldest such trees in the state of Florida.

After the meeting, Ayoub elaborated on what is sure to be a polarizing topic.

“Since the City of Safety Harbor does not own the property that fronts Main St. where the Baranoff Oak Tree is located and given that the property owner would like to extend the senior living facility that abuts the property the City has been negotiating with the property owner to purchase this parcel of land,” he wrote via email.

“Since we are looking at a purchase price of about $1 million and this is not factored into our budget I brought up the idea of putting out a survey to our residents to poll them to see if they would be willing to incur a temporary tax increase over three to four years to help pay for this property.

“This is the last piece of greenspace on Main St. and we have discussed turning it into a mini-park so this survey would be a great opportunity to give our residents a chance to weigh in on the issue.”

Harborites, what do you think? Should city officials raise the millage rate to help pay for the Barnoff properties, or is that too much to ask to help preserve one of the state’s oldest trees?

Let us know in the comments below or on the Safety Harbor Connect Facebook page!

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