MADEIRA BEACH — Two very different visions for the city's future were offered to voters Wednesday as mayoral and commission candidates vied for support in the March 11 municipal election.
Two candidates, both incumbents — Mayor Travis Palladeno and District 2 Commissioner Nancy Hodges — strongly defended their decision to build a $10 million municipal complex, as well as steps that have resulted in lower taxes, greater revenues from parking and other fees, and the building of a new destination hotel.
Mayoral challenger Dr. Victor Cucaro answered virtually every question with a simple yet clear message — the city needs to spend less money. He said he is "definitely not" in favor of the current commission's actions.
William "Billy" Wright, who is challenging Hodges for her District 2 commission seat, said he is "kinda yes" in favor of the direction the current commission has set for the city, but emphasized that he thinks the city government needs to be more frugal with taxpayer money.
The candidate forum, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, drew a large crowd to listen to the candidates answer questions from the chamber, as well as from voters.
Those questions ranged from their views on the value of tourism to how the city might help property owners deal with rising flood insurance costs.
At the end, in a series of quick yes-no answers, all four candidates said they would raise property taxes if needed to cover essential services to residents and all four said they were opposed to allowing parking on the beach during events.
Palladeno said that during his three-year tenure as mayor the city was reorganized and is now led by a "top-notch" city manager.
"We are the center of the barrier islands and now are a leader in Pinellas County," he said. "I want to keep the city successful and keep Madeira Beach on course."
Hodges said she is "proud" of the commission's accomplishments that she said "are bringing us closer to becoming a leading tourist destination, in addition to being a great place to live."
Among the commission's accomplishments, Palladeno and Hodges listed the lowest property tax rate since 2005; improved infrastructure, including 14 new beach walk-overs, cleaning of stormwater outfalls, and new or repaired seawalls; and a completely renovation of the gulf-front Archibald Park.
New scheduled projects include a city hall, fire station and recreational complex; street repaving; and continued improvements to the stormwater system.
Curaco strongly opposed building a new city hall complex that he said will cost the city about $15 million including the interest on the debt, and also criticized previous decisions to spend money on the city's marina and refurbishment of Archibald Park.
"When are we going to get that money back? This is a problem," he said, calling the city hall an "opulent building we don't need."
Curaco said the city should simply have fixed the leaky roof, but did not address engineering reports that indicated the cost of repairing the building would have exceeded FEMA limits.
"We need to be good stewards of your money. We need to be more frugal," said Wright, calling for better communication with "the voters and taxpayers we represent".
He said he would provide more "balance" to the commission, if elected, and criticized the current commission for the new city hall design.
"My eyes bugged out, just like everyone's, but the horse is out of the barn and we are now on the hook for another 30 years," Wright said.