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For Zephyrhills, last ballot question most crucial

This may be the definitive political unknown.

After the 13 choices plus a write-in spot for president of the United States, the Congressional, legislative and county races, the seven judicial positions, even Mosquito Control District and the six amendments to Florida Constitution rests one more race on the 2008 ballot for 7,230 voters. Zephyrhills, Pasco's second-largest city, needs to fill a vacancy on its City Council. It's a five-month term that will be up again in April.

The three-way contest began two months ago, but the campaign has been understated, to put it mildly. The qualifying period concluded simultaneously with the resignation of the police chief, who had been suspected of falsifying payroll records. Guess which story garnered more attention?

Daily newspapers, including this one, have given the race short shrift in coverage. When the candidates did make the ballot, a Tampa Tribune report referred to the trio as "political newcomers" even though one is a former council member and another has run for Pasco sheriff and the state House of Representatives.

There are no forums or debates planned. Only one candidate, Manny Funes, has put up the traditional yard signs. Funes, a veteran of two runs for sheriff and the state House, also mailed his resume and platform to 500 voters.

Word of mouth is the campaign of choice. If anybody is listening.

Funes, a longtime law officer and former teacher, is a real estate agent. Lance Smith, the former council member, is a real estate broker and licensed contractor. Mark LaMonte is an electrical contractor who has had to overcome news accounts of his criminal record.

All three have an affection for youth sports. Funes, through his Rotary Club, works the concession stand at Zephyrhills High School athletic events and used to be the public address announcer there. Smith coaches youth soccer and the junior varsity squad at the high school. LaMonte is the director of Zephyrhills Police Athletic League football.

It is a race with no well-defined issues. The economy is on everyone's mind, and this town is no exception. The Zephyr­hills Council just agreed to subsidize the rent of a downtown coffee/sandwich shop through its Community Redevelopment District for six months. It wants a foot-traffic incubator to attract other retailers or eateries to balance the professional offices.

If you're not walking, drive just south of town along U.S. 301 and check out the new housing development at Rapid River Boulevard. It has streets, decorative lights and not a single house.

"It's funny," said Smith. "Before it was control growth. Now, it's how do we stimulate growth?"

Smith believes balancing the budget will be the leading issue over the next two years as the city seeks to maintain services amid shrinking resources. Gone are the days, for now anyway, when the City Council debated building a civic/performing arts center or developing a park on the city's north side.

What's on the public's mind?

"Everyone says, 'Manny, keep my taxes down.' That and (public) safety," said Funes.

It's a forgone conclusion. Legislative-imposed spending caps and voter-mandated increases in the value of property tax exemptions means taxes will be staying down for homesteaded residences.

This election also is a dry run for an idea floated by the city manager: moving the municipal election from its traditional April date. It saves the city the cost of paying for the election and, more important, will bring more people to the polls. In April, 618 voters, or 8.55 percent, turned out to decide a contested council seat.

Figure as much as 75 percent of the electorate, or more than 5,400 registered voters in Zephyr­hills could cast ballots by 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Exactly how many of them make it to the end of the ballot is the big question. The City Council race is on page two, after the constitutional amendments, as state law dictates.

"This is crummy placement," said City Manager Steve Spina. "I probably would have missed it myself."

"If they're not educated voters," agreed Funes, "they're probably just going to turn it in."

Which means the most important campaign announcement in Zephyrhills this year is the message on the lower right-hand corner:

"Vote both sides of ballot."

For Zephyrhills, last ballot question most crucial 10/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 5:22pm]
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