Pinellas County's geopolitics have become a campaign issue in the crowded Republican primary for an open County Commission seat.
Some north county residents have complained that they pay a big chunk of taxes but don't get their fair share of investment and attention in return. Candidates in District 4 say that sentiment has been amplified by the debate over the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum.
The candidates' response: Vote for me and I'll be your voice.
Seven Republican hopefuls are vying for the seat that retiring Republican Susan Latvala has held since 2000: Dave Eggers, Tim Keffalas, Johnny Johnson Jr., Wanda Kimsey, Macho Liberti, Peter Nehr and Jim Ronecker. The district includes Safety Harbor, Dunedin, Palm Harbor, East Lake, Tarpon Springs and Oldsmar. The winner moves on to the Nov. 4 general election.
"It's not just that they don't feel they're getting their fair share," said Kimsey, a Tarpon Springs resident and former longtime administrative assistant for the County Commission. "They feel like they don't have a voice that listens to their concerns and views."
Candidates say the discontent is especially strong in Palm Harbor, an unincorporated area with a downtown core.
"Palm Harbor could definitely rival the likes of a downtown Dunedin, but there hasn't been that much effort put into it," said Liberti, a Palm Harbor resident and Largo firefighter. "The business owners are frustrated. They need someone who can bring some dollars to that area."
The affluent enclave of East Lake got some attention recently when the commission voted to create a new taxing district there to fund the private, nonprofit East Lake Youth Sports Association. Eggers, Keffalas, Liberti and Ronecker said they would have let voters decide in a referendum. Nehr said the county should have helped the association without a new tax. Johnson said residents he spoke to support the tax and he would have, too. Kimsey would have wanted more information before making a decision.
Beyond dollars, candidates say north county residents in cities and unincorporated areas alike want officials to do a better job including them in decisions that affect their areas.
Kimsey and Keffalas, both of Tarpon Springs, cited what some Tarpon officials and residents saw as a lack of communication about the commission's vote to raze the Beckett Bridge. Keffalas said the county also failed to reach out to Tarpon residents about the impact of raising water rates.
Ronecker, who has served on the Oldsmar City Commission since 2003 including two terms as mayor, said he rarely heard from Latvala. He said officials on both sides need to figure out how county and city governments can work together.
"With better communication, you find economies of scale to save the taxpayers money," he said.
Johnson, a retired pediatric dentist and Tarpon resident who has won Latvala's endorsement, said candidates are exaggerating the level of dissatisfaction as a political ploy.
"They are using it as a way to gain a favorable outlook on their campaigns by saying Susan has not been listening to the cities and the people up here, and that's not the case," Johnson said. "I've talked to officials in all the cities and they say they can call her and the county administrator at any time and talk things through."
There is no doubt the Greenlight Pinellas plan is raising hackles, though.
If approved by voters Nov. 4, the county's sales tax would rise from 7 cents to 8 cents on the dollar to expand bus service by 65 percent and build a 24-mile light rail system between St. Petersburg and Clearwater. The tax would replace the current property tax that funds the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Supporters say that would be a boon for many north county taxpayers with high property values.
But District 4 candidates say residents see the plan as another example of north county neglect, and that the benefits to areas north of Clearwater aren't worth the tax increase. Five of the seven candidates agree.
"I don't think it's in North Pinellas' best interest," said Keffalas, owner of a graphic design and printing company. "And I'm concerned that when Penny for Pinellas comes up for renewal it won't be granted because people will say wait, we have enough sales tax."
Nehr, who owns a courier company, said, "In my opinion, if you're running as a conservative Republican, you shouldn't be for increasing taxes by 14 percent."
Johnson said he personally supports the plan because he believes it will spur redevelopment and attract new companies that will pay higher wages and expand the tax base.
Eggers, who is mayor of Dunedin, agrees. He would have preferred a half-cent sales tax increase to first focus on improving the bus service, but he supports the Greenlight plan in large part because it would improve bus and trolley service in North Pinellas and the North County Connector that many seniors rely on to get them to the bus stop.
"You either decide now that you want an improved transit system or you wait another six to eight years," he said.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.