Friday, May 25, 2018
Politics

Safety Harbor commissioner pushes back on changed election dates

SAFETY HARBOR — Commissioner Nancy Besore delivered harsh words to her commission colleagues Monday after they refused to reconsider a controversial measure that will give Mayor Joe Ayoub and Commissioner Nina Bandoni an extra eight months in office.

"I'm going to hesitate to put on my suit in the future and come out and serve with pride because I do not like what we did tonight about the election," she said, adding that her informal clothes will signify her shame. "(The decision) was a disgusting disappointment."

Her comments came after commissioners voted 3-2 to save the city $20,000 per election cycle by moving Safety Harbor's March elections to November to coincide with state and federal elections. Besore and Cliff Merz voted no.

Critics called the decision a power grab by Ayoub and Bandoni, who lengthened their own terms by eight months.

Among other options, commissioners shot down a last-minute plea by Besore to save the same money by changing the March 2015 election to November 2014.

Under Besore's proposal, she and commissioners Merz and Richard Blake would have served their full terms until March, even if they were voted out in November.

Merz favored keeping the election in March.

Besore said she initially resisted the idea of running for office in November, when the noise of national campaigns can make it more expensive and difficult to attract attention to city issues.

But she said residents have flooded her with emails, and she senses the issue has caused a community divide that can be repaired only if elected officials refuse to extend their own terms.

For weeks, opponents of the extension have signed petitions and rallied at City Hall. They showed up again Monday, jeering after commissioners said they were sticking with their previous decision to lengthen the terms for Ayoub and Bandoni.

Several Pinellas County cities, including Largo and Dunedin, have changed their city elections to coincide with state and national elections, after the state curtailed payments for local elections. To offset that financial impact, state lawmakers gave local officials the authority to change election dates by ordinance rather than by citywide referendum.

In other action Monday, commissioners considered raising property taxes for the first time in more than a decade, as the city faces possible cuts to employee health insurance, Fourth of July fireworks or other items.

The proposed increases came at the recommendation of City Manager Matt Spoor, who said Safety Harbor's tax rate would still be among the lowest in the county.

The proposed change, a 9.7 percent hike over last year's tax rate, would generate an extra $293,920 for the city and would help offset Safety Harbor's projected $635,000 budget shortfall.

The balance could be covered by cost-cutting and dipping into city reserves, which are among the healthiest in the county.

If the proposed increase is approved, a property owner with a home assessed at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $371 next year. The same property owner paid $338 this year.

During budget discussions, commissioners seemed most hesitant to cut the fireworks, which cost about $24,600 for a 10-minute show.

Rather, they said, city staff could look at re-evaluating the health and dental plans for public employees or reducing a full-time deputy who mostly writes traffic tickets.

A tax hike, if one passes, could also pave the way for development of the city's new park property on Old Tampa Bay, a project Ayoub has pushed. City leaders hope to eventually install pedestrian trails, a boardwalk, a canoe launch and other assets for roughly $6.3 million.

Safety Harbor, like all Florida cities, must decide a maximum property tax rate by Aug. 2. After that, commissioners may lower the rate but may not hike it.

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.

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