In race for Pinellas County Commission seat, candidates back away from tax hikes

Beverley Billiris, left, is fending off questions about past tax increase votes from foes Susan Latvala, center, and Carl Folkman.

Beverley Billiris, left, is fending off questions about past tax increase votes from foes Susan Latvala, center, and Carl Folkman.

As mayor of Tarpon Springs, Beverley Billiris voted the past two years to raise the city's property tax rate.

The budget votes were needed to adequately maintain city services, she said, and the city still collected less tax.

But now as Billiris campaigns to be on the Pinellas County Commission in Tuesday's Republican primary, Commissioner Susan Latvala and rival Carl Folkman have criticized her votes.

"I wouldn't have dreamed of raising taxes and knowing what is happening in the economy. What a slap in the face to the citizens," Latvala said.

Billiris' votes play into key issues — taxes and spending —in the campaign for the District 4 seat, representing north Pinellas voters.

But Billiris isn't the only one with a record. A 10-year commissioner, Latvala, 61, voted for tax rate increases in 2001 and 2002, as property values rose.

Of the three, only Folkman, 44, a wine and spirits broker who never has held public office, hasn't voted for a tax increase. He says he never will.

But not Billiris, who suggested the county should have upped its tax rate the past two years, too.

"I would rather have done that than sit and look toward next year and an $80 million deficit. I would have definitely given it some strong consideration," said Billiris, 62, who left the city office in March due to term limits.

Pinellas County sustained shortfalls as property values plummeted the past few years, including an $80 million hole forecast for the next two years.

Before the real estate bust, county spending increased above inflation and population growth.

As a result, the county has issued nearly 500 layoff notices this year and last. It cut services like pothole repairs and policing. A prime example: The $23.6 million Eagle Lake Park in Largo was locked for nine months after being largely finished last year. Officials said money was too tight.

"I would not have turned one shovel into that ground, not one shovel, until we had 10 to 15 years of operating funds around," Folkman said

Much-smaller Tarpon Springs hasn't faced such deep struggles. Billiris, who spent most of the past 12 years on the city commission, has seized on the city as an example. The focus on the recent tax votes obscures three votes lowering taxes in previous years, she said.

From 2000 to 2007, the city's per capita spending grew 17 percent. The county's rose 60 percent over the same time.

Folkman said the county doesn't have a revenue problem — it has a spending problem.

"There's more fat to be cut? Absolutely. … They're going to have to cut across the board or get rid of certain departments," Folkman said.

But when it comes to identifying departments to trim, Folkman and Billiris demur. Instead, they promise to seek audits of every department — even though the commission can't compel audits of the sheriff and other elected officeholders, who handle a large part of the budget.

Latvala argues her opponents lack understanding of how the county works and how the cuts she backed will "right size" the county. That's on top of their personal financial issues, including multiple foreclosures against Folkman and three years of tardy property tax payments by Billiris.

By October, 1,600 county jobs, including vacant ones, stand to be trimmed since 2007. Raises were eliminated a year ago.

The much larger county government also relies more on property tax revenue than the city does.

"Beverley still doesn't realize that what has happened to the state of Florida long term," Latvala said. "She talks like … this is just a blip in the economy. This is the worst recession since the Great Depression.

During her tenure, Latvala has advocated greater consolidation in emergency services to save money. She also voted for a tax rate cut in 2006 as irate residents demanded reductions, a precursor to state lawmakers forcing cuts on cities and counties.

But she also voted for the 2007 deal to buy then-Property Appraiser Jim Smith's land at four times its public assessed value that triggered a grand jury.

At $104,000, Latvala has received vastly more campaign contributions than her opponents, giving her a leg up campaigning. But criticized for her treatment of other community officials, she faces the most serious challenge in a decade.

The winner faces Democrat Bob Hackworth, a former mayor of Dunedin, in the Nov. 2 general election.

In race for Pinellas County Commission seat, candidates back away from tax hikes 08/19/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 23, 2010 2:09pm]

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