TARPON SPRINGS — In the upcoming municipal election, residents will have their pick of four fresh faces to represent them on the City Commission.
Coming from distinctly different backgrounds, the four — David Banther, Jim Bouldin, Tommy Frain and Tim Keffalas — meet in their first candidate forum Tuesday.
Voters will choose one to fill the nonpartisan, citywide Seat 4 for three years. Whoever wins the March 12 election will replace Seat 4 commissioner Chris Alahouzos, who has reached his term limit.
Mayor David Archie and Commissioner Jeff Larsen automatically gained their second terms when no one filed to run against them.
While the election is on March 12, those who have requested mail ballots will begin receiving them much earlier — by mid February.
The city election comes as local leaders say the business climate is improving in Tarpon Springs, with the recent hire of a city economic development manager and increased teamwork between the city, Chamber of Commerce and Sponge Docks merchants.
Property taxes have remained at the same rate for three years. The city has healthy reserve funds but has continued to rely on them to balance the city budget — last year, more than ever. Even though the city took extra measures to cut down on that dependency, one commissioner firmly disagreed with leaning so heavily on reserves.
In response to questions from the Tampa Bay Times, the four commission candidates laid out their stances on the city's economic issues.
All of them shied away from supporting an increase in property taxes. Aware of the limits of the reserves, the candidates expressed varying levels of concern over continuing to draw on those funds.
"The City Commission needs to make it a priority to work towards a balanced budget without using the reserves," said Banther, 30, a daily money manager.
A member of the city's Budget Advisory Committee, Banther suggested seeking public-private partnerships, streamlining City Hall and expanding the tax base through economic development.
He also would better educate residents on the rollback rate, an adjustment of the millage rate to bring in the same amount of tax revenues as the previous year. It accounts for changes in property values to have property owners pay the same annual amount in taxes. Banther said he would consider supporting the rollback rate if necessary.
Keffalas, 58, favors giving the economy another two years to recover before examining possible changes in the tax rates.
"While we are using reserves to balance the budget," he said, "we are in an extremely good position financially."
Keffalas, who ran an unsuccessful 2011 commission campaign, targets a more pressing economic problem for Tarpon Springs: That a section of the city is one of the most impoverished areas in the county. Relieving poverty there, he said, could in turn help boost city revenues.
Keffalas runs a small business that specializes in automotive accessories and personalized gifts. He's also involved in several local Greek organizations.
Candidate Bouldin, 59, wanted to look at trimming more costs.
"Tarpon's bean counters did a decent job cutting some fat and doing some smart spending," he said, but the city should explore further cuts while promoting economic development. Some savings could be realized through better management of staffing levels and building costs, he said.
Frain, 22, emphasized the need to attract new businesses.
"What we need," he said, "especially in these economic times, is the town to strive to be the most business-friendly city in the area."
A restaurant server with an economics degree from the University of South Florida, Frain said that could mean cutting costs for new businesses and streamlining permitting processes while the city invests in better advertising itself.
The City Commission has been discussing Sponge Docks improvements that aim to brighten Tarpon's key tourist destination while maintaining the integrity of the Greek culture. But not all merchants agree on what would make the area more attractive. It's a particularly touchy project with some merchants who fear drastic, out-of-character changes.
Frain and Keffalas would defer to residents and merchants to determine the work to be done. Banther and Bouldin both want to bolster the Sponge Docks and downtown area in cooperative efforts.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.