Garbage pickup. Code enforcement. Drinking water. These are the kinds of topics that occupy the time of City Council members, and are the earthy grist of municipal government.
This turf isn't exactly known for the ideological and partisan battles that dominate state and national politics.
Yet in the race to fill the vacancy left by Herb Polson's resignation in District 1, Democrats and Republicans have weighed in more blatantly than usual.
Democrats have lined up behind Charlie Gerdes. Dems such as Council member Karl Nurse and state Rep. Rick Kriseman have endorsed the 55-year-old attorney, whose party bona fides include serving as the Pinellas County fundraising chair in 2002 for Bill McBride's failed bid for governor.
GOP loyalists such as state Sen. Jack Latvala, state Rep. Jim Frishe and Mayor Bill Foster have endorsed Robert Kersteen.
"City races shouldn't be partisan, but this one is shaping up to be," Kersteen said.
Gerdes said his supporters may be Democrats, but that's just because those are the people in his orbit.
"Partisanship isn't intentional," Gerdes said. "It's a natural consequence of who my circle of friends are."
In the Aug. 30 primary, Gerdes won 52 percent of the vote with Kersteen garnering 28 percent. Gerdes said he's surprised that Foster endorsed Kersteen after the primary because it seemed he was dismissing the voters in District 1. Kersteen said Foster did it because he served as his mentor when Foster joined the council in 1998.
Despite the partisan divide, not too much separates the two on issues. Both support generous public investment in the police and fire departments, including the construction of a police station that could cost about $60 million. Both support the city's recent treatment of homeless people. Both say Foster is generally doing a good job.
And both insist, during these austere times, that they are "fiscally responsible."
Will red-light cameras make city streets safer?
Gerdes: I believe that in the two locations they will be installed on the west side (District 1), yes. Putting cameras at 38th Avenue N and 66th Street and Tyrone Boulevard will make those two intersections safer. If I'm elected, I will advance an ordinance that will increase the yellow light interval from three seconds to four seconds. Studies on red-light cameras have been split. Some say they work, others don't. But studies consistently show that increasing the yellow-light interval will help make streets safer. That's something I want to do.
Kersteen: I don't know. I think the jury is out. The question is, "Are they legal?" You get a ticket from a police officer, you get points off your license. If you get a ticket from a camera, you don't. You also can't cross-examine a camera. They treat the same violation differently. I just don't think that's legal. Plus studies show that it has increased rear-end collisions. I'm not in favor of doing this for the extra $900,000 in revenue they expect to collect. My position is no new taxes, no new fees, no new hiring until we get the budget in line with existing revenues.
The city faces yet another deficit in the city's 2013 budget. The city's property tax rate hasn't increased since 2007 (giving residents a total tax decrease of nearly $100 million as property value has declined). Is it time to increase the rate, or, absent that, ponder a new revenue source?
Gerdes: If the revenue reductions for 2013 are as substantial or in excess of this year, I don't think there's enough to cut. We can't keep cutting $8 million to $12 million every year. I think there's maybe $3 million to $4 million to cut, but beyond $6 million, I think we're either going to take money out of reserves as a revenue source or we will have to do some nominal millage rate increase.
Kersteen: There are still cuts to be made in the city management structure, such as assistant administrators. They should be eliminated. Also, eliminate those supervisors with six or fewer employees who report to them. Assign those people to open positions. Also, put traffic engineering under Public Works and eliminate the director of transportation position. That should be put under (Public Works administrator) Mike Connors, where it was for many years.
Is Mayor Bill Foster doing a good or bad job? Please explain.
Gerdes: Overall, he's doing an acceptable job. I wish he'd be more transparent. He's a smart guy, he loves the city, but he plays it too close to the vest. Not talking to a reporter at his Breakfast with the Mayor? That smacks of saying one thing at one place and something else at another place. And then the Rays secret plan? That didn't make sense. Bill has to be more confident in what he puts forth. I think he's doing a good job with public safety … especially the expenditures on bullet proof vests and a new armored vehicle.
Kersteen: He's doing a very good job. He's dealing with the Rays dilemma in a way that he has to. He has a fiduciary responsibility with the taxpayers and he's protecting the investment that they have made. I agree with him on the budget, but he's going slow about some changes I would suggest, such as merging departments and eliminating positions. He's making progress, though. I intend to present ideas to him to merge further. Sometimes it's better to go slow.
What will you do to address the stalemate between the Tampa Bay Rays and the city on the team's lease agreement binding it to Tropicana Field through the 2027 season?
Gerdes: We need to start over. There needs to be a summit or a reaching out after this baseball season is over to clear the air on what seems to be hard positions on both sides. I believe we took too much of a defensive position with the Rays. We have a lot to be proud of and promote in terms of keeping the Rays here. I'd like to start over and make the case that we're the place to be for the Rays. Letting the Rays look in other places will expedite the process that will let them conclude that St. Pete is the right place.
Kersteen: I want everyone to come to the table, including the Rays with their books open. If they don't agree to that, they don't want our support. I think that's very fair. (Rays owner Stu Sternberg) is saying he doesn't have enough money to buy thumpers. I'm not sure that's true. If attendance is such a big deal, why do they put all these games on TV? I have no answer for that.
Are tax breaks good incentives for companies, or does that just erode the tax base? Please explain what the city could do to spur economic development.
Gerdes: It can be used effectively. It has to be a case-by-case analysis. What's the reality of the job projections? Are these jobs that people in St. Petersburg can fill or will they be recruiting from all over the country? But I do think incentives can be effective tools. They can't be on the consent agenda and be rubber-stamped. The City Council needs to make sure the tax subsidy and tax incentive coming from the residents' pocket will be a payoff. There needs to be good, hard evidence that it will pay off.
Kersteen: With SRI International, it was a good investment. Jabil Circuit has not panned out. Whether (Jabil) will expand on Gandy Boulevard because of the credits promised them, who knows? Incentives can be hit or miss. How many jobs do they promise or produce? Why do they want to move? The City Council needs to make sure that we are making a good investment for the taxpayers before we approve them.