Candidates for Tarpon Commission answer questions about city's future

TARPON SPRINGS — You've seen the campaign signs on every corner and you may have answered more than one automated phone call.

But unless you attended a public forum when City Commission candidates answered audience questions, you may still be unclear where the people who want to represent you stand on the issues.

The Tampa Bay Times asked David Banther, Jim Bouldin, Tommy Frain and Tim Keffalas to weigh in on the questions below. They are vying for Seat 4, to be vacated by termed-out commission member Chris Alahouzos. Some candidate answers have been edited for brevity.

The third and final public candidate forum will be hosted by the Greater Tarpon Springs Democratic Club at 7 p.m. Monday at 400 S Walton Ave. The election is March 12.

What specific qualities or experiences do you have that would make you the best candidate to serve Tarpon?

Banther: I have been involved in public service in Tarpon Springs starting at a very young age, achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. From 2008-2011, I served on the Historic Preservation Board; in 2011 I was appointed to the Budget Advisory Committee. My advisory board experience, volunteer work with Tarpon Springs Rotary and the Boys & Girls Club, degrees in economics and management and experience running a local family business make me the most qualified.

Bouldin: During 25 years of newspaper management, I have been responsible for generating multimillion dollar ad revenues while keeping to a tight budget. This, combined with my ability to work with others to achieve common goals, are the key factors in my decision to seek this office. Over the years I have developed outstanding leadership and decisionmaking skills that I believe are needed for the job.

Frain: I attended Tarpon Springs schools and graduated with a degree in economics from the University of South Florida. I have been involved in local community service since I was 6 years old. Whether it was through the Tarpon Springs Elks Lodge, the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, the Boys & Girls Club, or the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, I have always had a dedication to my community.

Keffalas: For approximately 25 years I have been involved in Tarpon Springs politics. I have shown my ability to act as a watchdog over the city, and I am involved in the community. I have the time and the ability to devote to being a city commissioner and I have demonstrated that I have the desire to see Tarpon Springs be a successful city so residents can be proud to say they live here.

In your view, what is the biggest challenge facing the city and what would you do as commissioner to help address it?

Banther: I believe getting to a balanced budget, without using our reserves, should be priority No. 1. I would look to economic development and explore possible annexation issues to grow the tax base. Each budget year all city departments should be asked to present the leanest budget possible without a loss in city services. When the city begins to take in more revenue due to economic development and/or the expected rise in property values, that money should first be used to replenish our reserves and lower the tax rate.

Bouldin: My top priority would be to focus on developing our business, industry and resident population base. We desperately need to build our tax revenue base to ease the load on property taxes and increase our mix of affordable housing opportunities for young and old. I have already scheduled two meetings with Karen Lemmons, our economic development manager.

Frain: The biggest challenge facing Tarpon Springs is economic development. This would improve the lives of all of our citizens by providing jobs and an expanded tax base. I possess the real solutions to bring new businesses here while assisting existing businesses. By making it easier for businesses to operate here in Tarpon Springs, we create a welcoming environment which will help bring tax dollars. This will help us balance our budget without using reserves.

Keffalas: The biggest challenge facing Tarpon Springs is that a part of the city was placed on the county's list of five most impoverished places in Pinellas County. As part of that we have a tremendous homelessness issue. I will seek to unify the efforts more thoroughly with agencies that are seeking to help improve the quality of life for all the people of Tarpon Springs. I understand that homelessness goes beyond not having a job in many cases, and I will strive to help resolve these issues.

What changes should be made at the Sponge Docks to ensure its viability as a tourist attraction well into the future?

Banther: I am pleased to see how the city is investing in the future of the Sponge Docks. The addition of the bathrooms and the planned resting areas are great steps forward. I would like to see as much input as possible from merchants at the Sponge Docks, as they have the most at stake. I believe we need better tourism advertisement for our Sponge Docks. People drive by on U.S. 19 having no clue what we have to offer at the Sponge Docks and Historic Downtown.

Bouldin: I believe the fresh makeover in the works for the Sponge Docks is great as far as the cosmetics go, but I firmly believe that until regularly scheduled joint merchant meetings and workshops occur with the Sponge Docks merchants and the Tarpon Avenue/downtown merchants, neither group will achieve their true potential. The two merchant groups should cross promote and refer shoppers to each other's general districts.

Frain: The Sponge Docks is our gem and has helped to give Tarpon Springs the reputation and character it has today. We must preserve the historic nature and cultural uniqueness, while modernizing and making it more attractive to tourists and residents. I would like to see a plan that has had proper input from all business owners affected and would like to see the construction not interfere with operating businesses. We can achieve these goals by holding well-advertised public forums on the Sponge Docks and provide an array of plans from different individuals to reach the best decision for the community.

Keffalas: I attended all the meetings the merchants had, and I listened to their concerns. I also listened to the concerns of residents who do not feel the renovations should be done with taxpayer funds. I feel it is the obligation of the city to maintain the infrastructure at the Sponge Docks and to enhance public property as they would a park or a library or a museum. It is an attraction to the city, and we need a vibrant business community to have a successful city. What was presented is a wonderful improvement and was mostly acceptable to the people who spoke at the meetings. It will enhance the area and encourage further investment. More important is that most of the funding comes from the Penny for Pinellas.

What more, if anything, should the city be doing to attract new businesses and jobs to Tarpon Springs?

Banther: We took an important first step in hiring an economic development director. She is laying the groundwork, on a state and national level, to attract larger businesses to Tarpon Springs. This needs to be continued, and efforts need to be increased. I also believe we need to take care of our existing businesses as well, making sure we minimize any red tape in working with the city, as well as making sure they are aware of the business training programs that are offered by volunteer groups and the county.

Bouldin: Much effort should be extended to obtain critical contact information regarding retailers and industry leaders who are planning to expand or relocate to Florida in the near future. Our economic development manager would then visit these key prospects with compelling marketing promotion information and videos designed to highlight the availability of our prime commercial and industrial real estate as well as our growing, skilled workforce.

Frain: I have laid out a plan to streamline the permitting process for new businesses. This plan, along with other pro-business policies, has earned me the endorsement from the Pinellas Realtor Organization. This plan has safeguards to ensure developers do not have free rein during development, but help reward developers who adhere to our smart-code and other regulations. If we want new businesses to come to our community we must create a positive, pro-business environment.

Keffalas: The city recently hired an economic development manager and established a $100,000-plus budget for that department. The staff has only been in place about a year. I believe that the city is also on the right road with its partnership with the current Chamber of Commerce. There needs to be an understanding that the economy will rebound, and Tarpon Springs needs to be prepared for a national economic improvement by having methods and improvements ready.

Tarpon Springs has some of the oldest infrastructure in Pinellas County. Is the city devoting enough resources to maintenance of its aging sewer lines, water lines and streets? If not, what funding source would you advocate?

Banther: Tarpon Springs is the oldest city in Pinellas County, so it comes as no surprise that our infrastructure is as well. The city is currently doing the best it can with the financial resources at its disposal. However, I would like to see it become a priority to improve stormwater drainage. With the massive flooding we saw from Tropical Storm Debby, we need to take action as soon as possible to prevent that from happening again. This is a matter of public safety.

Bouldin: A review of the 2013 budget would suggest a great deal of attention has been focused on Tarpon's deteriorating infrastructure and a realistic plan is in place to deal with this reality. Currently, our impact fees are ensuring that all developers pay their fair share of these costs, and as new business and industry add to our revenue base, Tarpon will be able to step up infrastructure repair efforts.

Frain: I believe Tarpon Springs has been doing an efficient job of improving infrastructure over the past few years, and the plans are laid out to continue that. The 2013 budget highlights the goals of our Capital Improvement Program, which include stormwater improvements, sewage lift and treatment improvements, along with an array of other projects set to further improve our infrastructure. I believe expanding our tax base by encouraging economic development could open up more sources of funding, but I would never advocate to increase taxes or fees for our citizens.

Keffalas: Since the 1980s, the city has undergone vast repairs and replacement of broken sewer lines, water lines and all infrastructure. Annually, there is a tremendous budget dedicated to the maintenance and enhancement of infrastructure. The funding for these issues comes from various sources and needs to be utilized where most urgently needed. We seem to be lagging in stormwater issues. In part that is because we are in such a low area, which makes it difficult to prevent flooding during rapid rain storms. Sewer lines west of U.S. 19 also need to be installed in areas where homes are still on septic.

Contact Brittany Alana Davis at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353.

Candidates for Tarpon Commission answer questions about city's future 02/23/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 7:21pm]

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