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With time running out, St. Petersburg mayoral candidates seek to distinguish themselves

ST. PETERSBURG — Deveron Gibbons, trailing former City Council members Kathleen Ford and Bill Foster in the most recent mayoral poll, tried to label both as tax raisers at Wednesday's St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 candidate forum.

"The experience they tout has only had us experience more taxes over these past years," said Gibbons, 36, who was third in a St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership poll of 400 registered city voters released Tuesday. "Our government has not been living within its means."

The accusation, quickly rebutted by both Ford and Foster, was part of a 90-minute forum moderated by Times political editor Adam C. Smith and Bay News 9 anchor Al Ruechel and covering a range of topics — from jobs and the future of baseball to the Pier and combating panhandling problems downtown.

The event was one of the last chances for voters to see all 10 candidates before the Sept. 1 mayoral primary. The primary's top two finishers will advance to the Nov. 3 general election. (If the primary winner gets more than 50 percent of the vote, there is no runoff.)

For his part, Gibbons said that from 1998 to 2008, city property tax collections rose from $56 million to nearly $100 million. The time period covers the years that both Ford and Foster served on the council, as well as candidates Larry Williams and Jamie Bennett.

Ford cites a similar statistic, but uses 2001 as a baseline, when she already had left the council.

Foster said he has never voted for a tax rate increase. "He's just trying to win an election," Foster, 46, said of Gibbons. Foster said he believes the poll made him and Ford the target of more attacks.

Ford, meanwhile, disputed Gibbons' assertion entirely. In 1999 and 2000, she proposed cutting the city's property tax rate so the city would take in no additional tax revenue. Her measure was defeated by her council colleagues — including Foster and Williams — both times.

"I'm very comfortable with my record on the budget," Ford, 52, said.

Williams, 64, promised that he would not raise property taxes as mayor.

But Gibbons questioned the words of the former council members against what he called their actions.

"Government needs to not feed the beast of overspending," said Gibbons, a former aide to mayor David Fischer who now works as an executive with Amscot Financial. "Now the question is, do you want to entrust the same people who have voted to raise taxes, or do you want someone with experience and new ideas to get the job done?"

Other highlights of the forum, televised live on Bay News 9:

Big promises came from everywhere. Williams said he would make St. Petersburg the safest city in America. Later, he looked out into the audience at the Palladium Theater and promised to rid the city of panhandling.

Scott Wagman, a 56-year-old former paint manufacturing company owner, continued to say he would add 100 police officers by the end of his first term. Wagman also said he thinks he could lower the cost of residential garbage pickup by implementing curbside recycling and moving some trash pickup service to once a week.

Bennett, 57, said he would transform St. Petersburg into the arts capital of the southeastern United States.

Tapping into city reserves. Six candidates — Ford, Gibbons, Williams, 52-year-old homeless advocate Paul Congemi, 60-year-old restaurateur John Warren, and 47-year-old student Richard Eldridge — were asked if they would use city reserves to help meet budget needs.

Only Ford said she would.

Lightning round. Candidates were asked several yes and no questions during the forum.

Congemi, Eldridge, Foster and Williams said they would not sign a city gay pride proclamation. The others said they would.

Congemi and Warren said it was not essential to keep the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg downtown. Ed Helm, a 64-year-old retired lawyer said it was "probably" essential to keep the race in St. Petersburg.

Who would they vote for, other than themselves? Ford, Foster and Gibbons all said their second choice would be Williams, who in turn said he was "honestly undecided." Helm picked Ford. Warren and Eldridge chose Foster. Congemi picked Bennett. And Bennett, when asked, answered "No."

"I thought it was a yes or no question," he said, smiling.

Wagman said he would vote for Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who is not running.

With time running out, St. Petersburg mayoral candidates seek to distinguish themselves 08/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 21, 2009 7:39pm]

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