CLEARWATER — At Thursday's candidate forum, the third public gathering for five men running for City Council, the campaign got down to brass tacks, Clearwater-style: property taxes and Scientology.
Yet the potential firepower of those traditionally explosive issues failed to detonate. All of the candidates agreed that raising property taxes would be — at best — a last resort.
And all five agreed that the city should reset relations with the church, marred by months of discord over illegal tree-cutting and permit wars in the months preceding the November opening of the church's massive Flag Building downtown.
Council member Bill Jonson, defending Seat 4 against challengers David Allbritton and Konrad McCree Jr., said that if the state and county make cuts to city funding, it might be tough for the city to maintain a sixth straight year of flat millage rates. Its current rate is 5.155.
"Those are things that would be difficult for us to recover from using existing millage," Jonson said.
But city workers could be given ways to "work smarter" and the city could find ways to trim waste to spare taxpayers, he said.
Allbritton, 63, said he wouldn't support a millage increase, citing a recent improvement in the economy and housing prices. McCree, 29, said he would consult his constituents before deciding about a tax increase.
"It's not what Konrad thinks is best, but what's best is what's best for the people," he said.
Another council veteran, former city council member Hoyt Hamilton, who is running to replace outgoing Vice Mayor Paul Gibson in Seat 5, said "never say never" when asked about raising property taxes. Hamilton, 55, said such measures should be "always an absolute last resort."
Jon-Paul Rosa, 30, said he would have to "investigate a little more on whether a millage increase would be appropriate."
As for Scientology, the church is one of the city's biggest taxpayers and has been a part of the city for four decades, said Allbritton.
"I think with somebody that big, that has so much influence in the downtown area, that we ought to be working with them," he said.
Jonson said the city has been reaching out to the church in recent months and should continue to do so.
McCree said he thought it was sad that some residents had such intense dislike for the church.
"They're not monsters," he said.
Rosa said he'd recently visited a church-sponsored clinic for children and thought it didn't get the recognition it deserved for good work in the community. He said the city should seek "common ground" with the church.
The church needs to be treated by the city as a business, Hamilton said.
"The church owns property. The city owns property. They are business people to be respected and dealt with when necessary," said Hamilton, who added that he's a Methodist.
The 90-minute forum held at City Hall and moderated by Bay News 9 anchor Al Reuchel gave the candidates another opportunity to define themselves with opening and closing statements.
Allbritton said he was a common-sense businessman who wanted to change the city's reputation among developers and businesses as a "culture of no."
Jonson said voters trusted him as a man of integrity and master of policy detail who was also a fiscal conservative.
McCree said he was running as the fresh face of a new generation. An African-American, McCree said it wasn't long ago that someone like him wasn't able to vote, let alone run for office.
Rosa, an Army combat veteran, said he was a visionary who wanted the city to capitalize on emerging "green" technologies like solar power.
Hamilton, who served on the council between 2001 and 2006, stressed his deep roots in the community, legislative experience and ability to get thing done.
Allbritton and Hamilton also announced their endorsements by the city's police and fire unions. They have also been endorsed by the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce's political action committee. Rosa and McCree have been endorsed by the labor union that represents most city workers and the West Central Florida Federation of Labor, an AFL-CIO central labor council for the 12-county Tampa Bay area.
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago