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Beach election shapes up to be water referendum

Next month, St. Petersburg Beach residents will vote for two city commissioners and a mayor.

But when they enter the voting booth, residents also will be voting on something that isn't on the ballot: a controversial plan to pipe reclaimed water to the beach for irrigation.

In many ways, the municipal elections in this community are shaping up to be a kind of referendum on the reclaimed water project, which promises to be the hottest topic around City Hall during the next year.

All of the six candidates would like to ask residents what they think about the recycled water project. Incumbent Commissioner Saranan M. Lauck said she thinks polling residents by questionnaire may make a referendum unnecessary. The five other candidates favor putting the issue to a vote.

The city may see a shift on the issue come March, with so many of the candidates favoring a referendum. Earlier this month, the City Commission voted 4-1 against calling a referendum. Only Mayor Terry Gannon supported the voter poll.

But agreement among the six candidates largely stops there.

In the mayoral race, Gannon, who is up for re-election, supports the project, although he said he likely will vote against the current proposal, which would defray costs by tapping into the city's sewer system fund.

"The plan in front of us now is flawed; I don't think it will work," Gannon said. "I think we have to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan, including working with St. Pete and working with the county." He said he hopes, for example, that St. Petersburg Beach can hook into St. Petersburg's reclaimed water distribution system.

Gannon opposes using sewer system money to pay for the project because he believes the city will have to use much or all of the $5.5-million in sewer money to design and build an expensive storm-water runoff system that the federal government is likely to insist upon.

Gannon also is concerned that the price tag for the project already has jumped from $7-million to $12-million, and may increase further. "When the cost rose from $7-million to $12-million, my phone lit up," he said.

Gannon, 46, is originally from Palatine, Ill., and moved to St. Petersburg Beach 12 years ago. He holds a bachelor's degree in business management from Southern Illinois University, and sells residential real estate on the beach. He is running for his second term as mayor.

Gannon's opponent, former commissioner and retired U.S. Army Col. Mike Horan, also favors the project _ as long as users pay the costs of installing the pipeline. He does not support using city taxes to pay for the project, and would use reserve money from the sewer system only with voter approval.

"Many residents, including Dottie (his wife) and I, want this water," Horan said in campaign literature. "However, there is widespread apprehension and confusion as to how the project will be done, just how much it will cost and who will pay these costs.

"The lack of sound, effective leadership on the City Commission is a primary cause of this apprehension and confusion."

Horan, 63, has lived in St. Petersburg Beach for 16 years. He retired from the Army in 1976 after serving 25 years, ending his career as director of organization and force development at the Army's Infantry Center. Horan, who holds a master's degree in government from Georgetown University, was a city commissioner for seven years, serving as vice mayor from 1985 to 1989.

Lauck, the incumbent commissioner in District 1, said she believes a planned resident questionnaire may be the best way to find out what residents think about the controversial project. Lauck said she will vote for a referendum if the questionnaire is not a success, but she voted against calling a referendum earlier this month.

Lauck said she understands that residents and community activists are bitterly divided over the reclaimed water project. But much of the opposition is based, Lauck said, on misinformation.

"There are a lot of misconceptions," Lauck said. "We have been beating our heads against the wall trying to get the facts out about it."

Lauck said she favors the plan, so long as it does not prove costly to taxpayers. She said many residents would support the plan as well, except they do not wish to pay for recycled water that other residents will use to irrigate their lawns.

"There are people here with rock lawns who find it hard to look past their lawns and not say "What will this do for me,'

" Lauck said.

Lauck, 51, has lived in Florida 30 years, 18 in St. Petersburg Beach. She is a graduate of Eckerd College, and now works as a community relations specialist and coordinator of the speaker's bureau for Florida Power Corp. Lauck is seeking her second term on the commission. She has done a lot of community service, including planting sea oats and helping endangered sea turtles.

Lauck's opponent, Stanley Cidlowski Jr., also favors the plan, although he said he's not sure that irrigating lawns with recycled water is the best way to solve the area's water shortage.

"I think it's a good thing," Cidlowski said, "but it has it's drawbacks."

For one thing, Cidlowski said he worries that reclaimed water may enter the Floridan aquifer and pollute the area's drinking water. He said he also is concerned that the reclaimed water could be discharged into Tampa Bay or the Gulf and pollute those waters as well.

"We do not know what this water will do to the water table," Cidlowski said. "The water may empty into the bays. And we've finally got them cleaned up the last 15 years."

Cidlowski, 50, has lived 35 years in St. Petersburg Beach, where he moved to from Lynbrook, N.Y. He works as a general contractor and a Realtor with Florida Property Center Inc. Cidlowski also works with St. Petersburg Beach's Volunteer Fire Department.

Cidlowski was convicted in 1983 of driving under the influence of alcohol, and was placed on six-months' probation. "It's an unfortunate thing that happened," he said. "I shouldn't have been driving and drinking. It happened a long time ago."

The race in District 3 will pit two newcomers against each other.

George N. Manthos said he opposes the current reclaimed water plan, which calls for installing pipeline throughout the city. Manthos supports designing a new system in which the city would lay pipes only in neighborhoods that petition for the service and pay fees in advance to defray construction costs, he said.

"The purpose of that is you would not have to borrow any money and pay any interest," Manthos said. "The plan we have here is to put in the total system on every single street whether anybody asks for it, and whether anybody wants it."

Manthos, who supports the statewide growth management program, said he fears the reclaimed water project may be used as a "pretext" to increase population densities in St. Petersburg Beach when the city begins to redevelop.

By recycling water, the city will be solving one of the most perplexing problems facing urban Pinellas. Eventually, Manthos said, the water shortage could lead to a significant reduction in the area's growth.

Manthos, 78, has lived in St. Petersburg Beach for 44 years, after moving from Washington., D.C. He holds a master's degree in educational administration from the University of South Florida, and retired from teaching in Pinellas County schools after 20 years. Manthos has served eight years on the City Commission, including stints as mayor and vice mayor.

His opponent, Sarah "Renee" Roos, said she supports the reclaimed water project but worries that St. Petersburg Beach residents do not have enough information on the current proposal to weigh the advantages and disadvantages.

"I think reclaimed water, in this day and age, is a necessity," Roos said. "We recycle body parts, and the Germans recycle newspaper for the interior of Mercedeses. Reclaimed water, with respect to the aquifer, is a necessity, not a luxury."

Roos would like to see the city move slowly with the project, however, until officials and taxpayers have all the information they need to make a decision.

"It's like a doctor trying to prescribe medication for a patient," Roos said. "You cannot make a diagnosis until you have all of the test results."

Roos, 42, is a native Floridian who has lived in St. Petersburg Beach for four years. She worked as a dance instructor in Hillsborough County for 10 years before going into the publishing business with her husband, Peter. Roos teaches acrobatics in Brandon. She won the Soroptimist International Award in 1990 for contributions in the arts and recreation.