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Clearwater pamphlet draws fire

Utilities customers in Clearwater are receiving pamphlets with their bills urging them to "Keep Local Taxes Local" by voting in favor of Amendment 3 in November. The amendment _ which the City Commission strongly supports _ would make it difficult for the Legislature to create mandates for local governments without providing the money to pay for them.

But opponents say by sending out literature in utility bills, Clearwater officials appear to be trying to sway voters and are crossing an ethical line.

"(The brochure) is obviously a one-sided view of the whole issue," said Ed Hooper, president of the Clearwater firefighters union. "They're using tax dollars to promote this amendment and that sounds very unethical, or shaky anyway."

City officials know they cannot tell voters how to vote on an issue, and Public Information Officer Jennifer Parramore, who created the pamphlets, said the legal department and the administration approved them.

"We can't say, "Vote this way,' but we can say, "We want you to be aware of what this is,"' she said. "We're aware of those boundaries and we followed them."

The Florida League of Cities gave Clearwater guidelines for the brochure, she said, and those guidelines were followed.

"They tell us what's borderline," she said. "And this is not anything questionable."

The brochure cost $982, which came out of the City Commission's budget, Parramore said. About 42,000 were sent out with the bills.

The front of the brochure reads, "Vote Nov. 6 ... Amendment 3 ... A proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution ... A "Yes' vote would limit unfunded state mandates ... Keep Local Taxes Local!"

Inside is a question-and-answer section about the amendment. The back gives a list of supporters of the amendment including the Clearwater City Commission, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties, Florida TaxWatch (a tax watchdog group), and more than 80,000 Floridians who signed petitions demanding the right to vote on the issue.

At the commission's last meeting, commissioners put up flags and bumper stickers around the chambers with the same phrase, "Keep Local Taxes Local!"

"If you say you're going to vote against it, they look at you like you're a communist," Hooper said.

Many public employees say the amendment would hurt their pension plans and jeopardize the 1985 Growth Management Act by thwarting the state's attempt to create a healthier environment.

The Professional Fire Fighters of Florida plans to sue the Florida League of Cities for spending tax money to make the bumper stickers and produce videotapes urging voters to vote yes, said Skip Kroeger, a Clearwater firefighter and lobbyist for the group.

"We've uncovered a real hornet's nest as far as the League of Cities using tax dollars for this," he said. "It should be an eye-opening thing to the citizens paying taxes that those dollars are being used by cities _ and Clearwater is one of them _ to do unethical things."