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10 percent expected to vote in Tarpon

A five-item referendum will go to voters Tuesday as the city seeks permission to buy land to build a neighborhood park, donate property for low-income housing and grant exceptions to the requirement that some officials live in the city.

"It's pretty straightforward," said City Manager Costa Vatikiotis.

City Clerk Kathy Alesafis said she expects about 10 percent of the city's 14,567 registered voters to go to the polls. Just under 10 percent of the voters turned out in December for the last referendum, which dealt with a property purchase and fireworks issue.

"There might be a little more interest because of some of the issues," Alesafis said of Tuesday's referendum. "We've been getting more absentee ballots, so that shows there must be some interest. I'll be thrilled if we get 10 percent."

Here are the questions on the ballot:

Should the city allow exceptions to its charter requirement that certain employees be residents of the city?

The question, initiated by the city staff, would amend the city charter to allow for exceptions to its residency requirement. In 1995, residents voted 2,301 to 1,481 to force the city's 10 department heads and charter officials to move to the city within one year of being hired.

"The current language is very rigid," said Vatikiotis. "This suggested change does not alleviate the requirement; it simply provides some flexibility."

The change would allow department heads to be exempted for one-year periods from the residency requirement. Such exemptions would be granted in cases of hardship, Vatikiotis said. Hardships could include having a hard time selling a house, a sick relative or children who wanted to complete the school year at a school outside the city.

Vatikiotis points to the 23 months it took him to sell his home in Pinellas County when he was hired in Tarpon Springs. Someone could live 50 feet outside the city limits and be forced to move if he wanted to work for the city, he said.

"If it means not being able to hire an excellent person, a well-qualified person, because they're not willing to live within the city, that does a disservice as well," Vatikiotis said. "The overall objective is to get the best qualified person for the position."

In the early 1980s the city required police officers to be residents of the city but had a provision to allow for extensions of up to six months, Vatikiotis said.

"This is consistent with what was general practice in the early 1980s," he said.

Some had questioned whether the referendum item was written for the benefit of Personnel Director Al Michetti, who lives in St. Petersburg. Last month, Vatikiotis sought the opinion of the city's personnel attorney, Thomas Gonzalez, on whether Michetti is required to move.

Gonzalez determined the residency requirement does not apply to Michetti because he was already an employee of the city when he was promoted to personnel director. The charter says the residency requirement does not apply to current employees.

John Tarapani, who headed the last charter review committee, says the change proposed in Tuesday's referendum would create "a significant loophole in the charter." He said voters have already decided it is important for city leaders to live in the city.

"The people felt that the people who are running the government have to live with the decisions they place upon them," Tarapani said.

Tarapani also worries that exemptions could be granted year after year. The change would allow the commission to decide.

However, "if the commission feels it's reached a point where the department head should have corrected the emergency, it can deny the exemption," Vatikiotis said.

Should the city purchase a residential lot and build a minipark for the Trentwood Manor subdivision for no more than $100,000?

This item would allow the city to buy a lot in this built-out subdivision of 250 homes, demolish a house and build a park for the neighborhood. Currently, the city's mobile recreation van has to close off one of the subdivision's seven streets so children will have a place to play.

Resident and Neighborhood Watch director Rebecca France has been lobbying for a park in Trentwood for a year and a half.

"This neighborhood is unique in that it has a tremendous amount of children, particularly young children," France said.

The minipark, she said, would be a good start for the neighborhood. The City Commission, she said, was more agreeable to building a minipark than a larger park.

Several homes for sale in the subdivision would be candidates for a park site. The city's first choice on Coppertree Drive has been sold.

The creation of the park would help fulfill a goal of the city's comprehensive plan. It states the city needs to create at least six miniparks to meet children's needs.

Should the city donate property in the Union Academy neighborhood to a non-profit agency for the development of low- to moderate-income housing?

The city owns about seven lots in the historically black neighborhood surrounding the Union Academy, now a cultural center. The city does not collect taxes on the lots, each valued at up to $7,500.

The referendum question would allow the lots to be given to a housing organization such as Habitat for Humanity or the Clearwater Housing Association for development of new housing.

A 74-page action plan to improve the neighborhood released early this year cited development of new housing as a goal.

"The city wishes to contribute those lots to that effort," Vatikiotis said.

Should the city enter into a 10-year contract with Variable Life Insurance Co. to administer the pension plan for city employees?

The city charter allows only five-year contracts, so the referendum item would be an exception to the charter. Vatikiotis said the 10-year contract would provide the pension program more stability.

Should the city enter into a 10-year franchise agreement with GTE for cable service?

Similar to the previous question, this referendum item would be an exception to the charter limitation of five years for contracts.

GTE Media Ventures has been expanding cable service throughout the county, offering residents in many cities a choice of cable operators. GTE wants a 10-year contract in order to get a reasonable rate of return on the investment it would make installing new cable lines in the city, Vatikiotis said. The commission is still negotiating the terms of the franchise agreement.