MADEIRA BEACH — A political battle is shaping up here between two candidates for mayor with very different visions for the city's future.
In the process, city employees are worried about their future jobs, according to retiring Mayor Pat Shontz.
"This is going to be a terrible campaign," Shontz said. "Employees have already left or are thinking about leaving. If we lose them all, we are going to have a mess in the city."
City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr. declined to comment on reports of employee concerns, saying he is barred ethically from getting involved in city elections.
Last summer, Planning Board members Travis Palladeno and Robin Vander Velde, who are now mayoral and District 4 commission candidates, respectively, repeatedly criticized Higginbotham's proposed city budget. Both called for severe cuts and reductions in city staff.
When the candidate qualifying period closed last Friday, Vander Velde, 46, was unopposed and will automatically be sworn in as a commissioner following the March 8 election.
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Oakley, another strong budget critic, was unopposed for re-election, too, so she automatically returns to her seat on the commission.
Commissioner Steve Kochick, 65, is giving up his District 4 seat after two terms to run for mayor against Palladeno.
Kochick, a retired New York City firefighter who has lived in the city for about 15 years, strongly supports the commission's budget decisions and the city's staff.
"I am ready to defend our employees and the city's financial situation. Bring it on," Kochick said Monday.
Kochick stressed that the city's tax rate has not increased in the past three years. "We have one of the most healthy reserves of all municipalities in Pinellas County and that is all due to the efforts and support of our staff."
He said it is "important to reassert the faith we have in our staff and the professionalism they show."
Kochick wants residents to give him the chance to bring the present commission's goals to fruition — beautifying Archibald Park, rebuilding the city marina's ship shore, constructing a World Trade Center memorial, and fight against proposals to privatize city services.
Palladeno, who has lived in the city since 1999, doesn't dispute that, but says city officials need to "think more out of the box" to find ways to both save tax dollars and find new sources of revenue.
"Our millage rate may be low but we haven't seen any improvements in the city. The infrastructure needs to be strengthened, drainage improved and overhead wires put underground," he said.
He says the city doesn't need to raise property taxes or touch the city's savings to make these improvements.
Instead, Palladeno, a charter boat captain who operates Live Wire Fishing Charters, says city hall should be "micromanaged" to combine many city functions and jobs and in the process "save taxpayer money."
Vander Velde, a computer consultant who moved back to Madeira Beach in 2007, agrees.
"I am geared toward fiscal responsibility. We are spending far too much money," she said Monday. "The citizens deserve to be listened to. Fresh, creative solutions can be found this way to help us through troubling financial times like these."
As for Oakley, she continues to argue the administration failed to answer budget questions she raised last summer.
At the time, finances debates centered on redevelopment planning, code enforcement, reconstruction of the city marina, parks maintenance, solid waste pickups, employee health insurance, and Higginbotham's decision to rehire retired Community Services director Mike Maxemow.
During those deliberations Oakley's car was vandalized with multi-colored paint and peanut butter smears — an act she says was directly related to her frequent complaints about the budget.