DADE CITY — The campaign for the April 8 election has been spirited — some say even dirty. But candidates, for the most part, stuck to issues at a forum Monday night at Pasco Middle School.
For almost 90 minutes, moderators questioned City Commission candidates about the budget and services. In a city that historically has operated on the thinnest of margins, leaders are even more concerned now with the recent passage of a constitutional amendment to reduce property taxes. Dade City anticipates a loss of about $300,000 from its general fund.
Candidate Curtis Beebe spoke the most frankly about finances. Throughout the evening, Beebe said youth centers and more paved roads will be difficult to pull out of a lean budget without outside help.
"Something's got to give," he said.
He wants citizen input on trimming the budget. He also said he'd like to explore inexpensive options, like beefing up the city's existing Web site, to keep residents informed.
Incumbent Eunice Penix wondered if there might be a different kind of citizen involvement with the budget, beyond their tax bill. Without being specific, she said residents should pitch in when their roads need repair. And she would like someone — a philanthropist, perhaps — to help the city get a youth center or swimming pool.
"Maybe some citizens will donate land," said Penix, who has spent 14 years on the commission.
Also up for re-election is Commissioner Steve Van Gorden, who has served since 2004.
In the past, he said the city has used Penny for Pasco money for city needs, and he would explore grants in the future.
"We're on the right path," he said.
In 2003, the city eliminated its fire department as a cost-saving measure. Moderators asked if the city might also cut the police department, which makes up about 30 percent of the budget.
Beebe said he would poll citizens for input. No one else favored the idea.
The city's finances weren't the only ones in question Monday night.
In 2007, the state said candidate Mike Agnello failed to pay taxes on revenue collected at his bar, the Osceola Tavern. Moderators asked if voters could trust him to manage their money.
Agnello, who is running against Penix, said he expected the question and pointed out that he would not be the only one making financial decisions. His experience as a small business owner would help the city, he said.
"I can stretch out a penny, trust me on that," he said.
Agnello said Dade City should get more county tourism money, and he has explored grants to improve sidewalks and roads around schools.
"There's money out there if you go out and get it," he said.
Commissioner Camille Hernandez, the only sitting commissioner not in the audience, was part of the discussion. Agnello referred to her when he said he would never surprise his fellow commissioners the way Hernandez did last year when she wrote a letter to the governor calling for an investigation of Mayor Hutch Brock and then-City Manager Harold Sample. She wrote her note on Dade City letterhead without the consent of the commission.
After her letter, Beebe led an effort to remove her from the commission. Moderators asked if his presence would lead to more bickering on the commission.
"We focused all of our energies on the behaviors at hand," he said. "I don't have a problem with (Hernandez.)"
Candidates remained polite despite an incident that morning when fliers critical of Beebe, Agnello and Van Gorden surfaced at the local post office. The fliers didn't come up at the forum, but Van Gorden alluded to rumors that have marred the campaign.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there," he said.
Candidates Jim Shive and Robert Avila were unable to attend the forum. Shive, who is running against Beebe, attended his mother's funeral earlier in the day. Avila, Van Gorden's opponent, had a prior obligation.
About 80 people attended the forum, which was organized by the Dade City Chamber of Commerce and moderated by columnists from the Times and the Tampa Tribune and a representative from Saint Leo University.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 521-6518