ST. PETERSBURG — All three Republican candidates for Pinellas County Commission District 6 praised President Trump at a forum on Thursday, and all agreed none of his policies have negatively impacted local residents.
"All I see happening right now is economic development is up, jobs are readily available, unemployment is down, so I think so far so good," said State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.
When an audience member asked how the candidates would address any negative impact to the local economy resulting from Trump’s tariffs on imports from Canada, China, Europe and Mexico, all three said there was nothing to worry about.
"The private sector will adjust to whatever is necessary in these trade situations," Ahern said. "And look, if it means more things will be now made in America, I’m all for that."
Barb Haselden, a citizen activist in her first bid for public office, said it was "high time" for the tariffs and saluted Trump because he "does understand the world economy."
State Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasedena, assured the audience she trusts "the process" and that "the free market would right itself."
However the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates $713 million in Florida exports are threatened by "an emerging trade war" in retaliation to tariffs Trump placed on imports from Canada, China, Europe and Mexico.
The three Republicans, who participated in the forum hosted by Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, will face off in the Aug. 28 primary for the seat held for 18 years by John Morroni, the Pinellas politician who died May 20.
August’s winner will run against Democrat Amy Kedron, a former college professor from Madeira Beach, in the Nov. 6 election.
Moderator Todd Jennings and audience members quizzed the candidates with questions tying state and federal policy to Pinellas County government.
When Tiger Bay member David Klement, executive director of the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions at St. Petersburg College, asked candidates how they would prepare Pinellas for the "massive economic disruption" expected from rising sea levels, none expressed much urgency.
Ahern suggested he would examine the current Commission’s policies to "look where we are right now, find out where we are right now."
Peters said the focus should be on improving the state flood insurance program.
When Klement noted recent studies estimate sea levels could rise about three feet by 2050, Haselden was skeptical, stating "I can’t agree with that."
"I think that basing today’s public policy on something that might happen 100 years from now is something that I’m not likely to do," she said. "I think there is too much disagreement as to what degree we may have."
However, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimate more than a dozen Florida communities, including St. Pete Beach, could experience recurring tidal flooding unrelated to any storm events by 2045.
A 2017 scientific report by 13 federal agencies stated human activity, especially the emission of greenhouse gases, is the primary cause of global temperature rise since the mid-20th Century.
Ahern and Haselden both said they support increasing the homestead property tax exemption, a proposed constitutional amendment that will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot, because many cities have not lowered property taxes as values have risen.
Homeowners stand to save an average of a few hundred dollars a year, while the added exemption is expected to cost Pinellas County $21.7 million in lost revenue. So what would the candidates cut from the budget if it passes?
Ahern said he would not advocate cutting anything from the budget to compensate because the $21.7 million is about 1 percent of the overall budget.
Haselden said the loss of property tax revenue from the increased homestead exemption would be made up by rising property values.
Peters declined to answer definitively if she supports the increased exemption, saying she was still analyzing how the decrease in tax revenue to local governments would disproportionately affect small fire districts that rely on property taxes.
But she said the county would not need to cut anything from the budget to compensate for the loss if the exemption passes because "I really don’t think the sky is going to fall."
All three said they do not support using public tax dollars, even those collected from tourists on overnight rentals, on funding stadium projects. The issue is hanging over Pinellas County as Clearwater has applied for $40 million in bed taxes to fund $79 million in upgrades to the Philadelphia Phillies stadium and spring training facilities.
The candidates tried to distinguish themselves by laying out their top priorities. Peters, a longtime advocate for mental health reform in the Legislature, said county government must build a coordinated system of care and solutions to address the opioid crisis.
"Now it’s at the local level," she said. "Now it’s time."
Ahern said his priority would be on the county’s infrastructure needs and protecting the county’s ever vanishing green space to "continue to invest in all that’s important to us."
Haselden said she’d bring the strongest conservative voice to the seven-member board, which currently has little friction or disagreement.
"Good public policy is a result of good debate," she said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.