Even before Pinellas Park voters got their first chance last week to observe the candidates running for mayor and City Council all in one forum, the races for the March 11 election had already proved exciting. The sheer number of contenders - 10 for three seats with six of them in one race - makes the election more like a mob scramble than a race. Former state Rep. Mary Brennan was the target who drew the first fire. She has not lived in the city for four years while her house is being revamped, and opponents criticized her for it. Another candidate, Jerry Mullins, is trying to make a positive out of a past that, among other things, has a DUI and drug possession charge (see his Web site at www.jerrymullinsforcouncil.com). Yet another, Marshall Cook, seems to be the stealth candidate. He didn't show up at Wednesday's televised forum and has not attended recent council meetings, although he has historically been a regular. Then there was the forum itself.
The sponsor, the Pinellas Park/Gateway Chamber of Commerce, handed out a list of questions in advance for the candidates. Chamber members picked five for the night of the forum. But even that gimme didn't mean things went smoothly. Janet Macumber struggled to find her prepared answer to the first question. Her opponent, Mayor Bill Mischler, helped her find her place. But even Mischler complained about a minor change to the form of the first question. To see how Mischler and the others answered that first question: "What is the single most important issue facing the city and what steps would you take to address it if you were elected to the council?"
About the election
The entire forum will be replayed Monday at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday at 9 a.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. on Bright House Channel 615.
The election is March 11, and successful candidates will take office March 13. Pinellas Park has about 48,000 people and a budget of about $49.3-million. The main duties of the mayor and the council are to set policy for the city and to establish a budget. Most months, they have two meetings and two workshops.
The mayor is paid $17,412, and council members earn $15,090.
Seat 3 candidates
Rick Butler, incumbent
He talked about the budgetary problems all cities will face. "We may not only have a shortfall in what we collect in ad valorem tax, but a lot of those franchise fees may be going away and that's a distinct possibility. So we've got a lot of challenges ahead, and I think those are probably the biggest ones in the city."
Did not appear
Seat 4 candidates
Taxes, balancing the budget and handling the fallout from the property tax amendment that voters passed earlier this month will be the main issues facing the city. He also named growth and development along Park Boulevard as additional concerns. Drainage, he said, has long been a problem in Pinellas Park, but it appears the council is fixing it. He said he hoped the city could spend money on parks and recreation, as well as other activities for kids.
"I believe the budget is the thing that will be the (number one) concern. We're going to have to cut some services. This is why I would like to be on the council. I would like to try very much not to lose one employee of the city."
The one issue that will outweigh all others is that "we're going to have some money problems coming up, and I think that what we need to do is get a little creative and get through these times and still keep the quality of life up for Pinellas Park. There's some ideas that have been kicked around, ways of making money that would work out very well. I don't have time to go into all of them. The main things is we need to concentrate on it, and we need to think outside the box just a little bit and think of a reasonable way of getting things done."
Bill Mischler, incumbent
Mischler protested that the question the candidates had been given asked for the three most important issues facing Pinellas Park. Moderator Mike Mayo responded, "If you were able to give us three, you should be ready to give us one." Mischler's three challenges were all budget-related. The first is the property tax amendment voters passed earlier this month. The second is the lagging economy that will adversely affect economic development in the city, as well as elsewhere. The third are laws passed by the Legislature that require cities to do or provide certain things without the money to do them. The effect is that cities have to spend money and take the hit from voters for the Legislature's actions. He predicted that jobs would be lost and hoped that would not include Pinellas Park.
After she fumbled for her written answer, she said, "Oh, I suppose that is question number which? Twelve. My apologies, ladies and gentlemen, I was expecting to be told which five were going to be first, were going to be asked when I walked in tonight a half hour early. But, as a licensed Realtor, your question was what? The single most important issue facing the city is probably, um, the, I'm lost. The most important single issue ... is the wasteful spending we have been doing. It leads to higher taxes, although we have not raised our tax rate, the never-ending annexation (fights), which have cost us friends ... and made enemies of our neighbors, and the relaxed code enforcement has reduced our property values."
Changes in property taxes and other state legislative actions, combined with the recessionary economy, will have an impact on Pinellas Park. "The property taxes are, believe it or not, a small, relatively small, source of city revenue. A lot of the city revenue comes from things like franchise taxes and others, so the property tax will have a very big impact as well as a potential loss of other revenue in the city.
"One of the things I would like to do is see the City Council appoint a special advisory committee made up of citizens and business owners here in Pinellas Park to help them make the tough decisions that will have to be made. We must look at what are the city needs, not necessarily what its wants are, like in our home budget."
"I've been out walking and talking to people, and the biggest concern I've found from the taxpayers is our budget. Undoubtedly, we're looking at cuts in our budget, but I really believe that, given the chance, this council and the people in Pinellas Park are going to come up and say we can do this. And we can. I believe that working together with business will create more opportunities, will create more money and more revenue for Pinellas Park. We have the best police. We have the best employees. We have the best city employees bar none, and that goes from the streets all the way to the top. We are not going to lose them. We are more creative than that. It's going to be hard ... but we can do it and, if you let me, I'd like to help do that."
"The most important issue is energy costs. We need to be on the cutting edge of changing our energy uses from oil to solar. I would recommend that we create a solar energy department and solarize public buildings and then teach residents how to solarize their homes, and that way we can be free of foreign oil from the bottom up."