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IT'S EXPERIENCE VS. NEW IDEAS

The former city attorney and two newcomers battle for one City Commission seat.

Susan Slattery wears her red and white campaign button everywhere.

Whether checking out at the grocery store or in line at the bank, the first-time City Commission candidate says her political accessory is a great way to get the word out about her campaign.

One of her opponents, Tod Eckhouse, has his own way of making an introduction to the Tarpon Springs electorate.

"I don't have the name recognition, but it seems like everyone recognizes the bungalow," said the relative newcomer about the historical home he and his wife renovated on Spring Bayou. So he has featured the recently revamped house prominently in his campaign literature.

The third candidate for City Commission, however, needs no introduction to many in Tarpon Springs. Herb Elliott served two terms as the city attorney - a total of 14 years - and resigned twice before being asked to leave.

"It would be easy and tempting for me to ride off into the sunset," Elliott said, but added the city could use his financial expertise.

Tarpon Springs is just one of the many Florida municipalities grappling with a slim budget in the wake of statewide property tax cuts. While all three candidates for the city's one competitive commission seat want to see the city ride out these tough times, they've set different priorities for reaching that goal.

Eckhouse, Slattery and Elliott are vying for David Archie's former seat in the March 11 election. Commissioner Robin Saenger is running unopposed.

Elliott says his long history with the city makes him better able to offer budget guidance than his opponents. He points out that he worked with 12 of the 17 mayors pictured in City Hall and read every ordinance that came before the commission during his tenure as city attorney.

He said he "knows where the city can save money."

Though Elliott said he didn't think the city was wasteful, he outlined a number of different cuts that could be explored. For example, city employees currently receive pension and insurance benefits more generous than those allotted the average worker, he said.

Elliott also suggested asking city employees where they think cuts could be made.

While Elliott by far has the most extensive experience with Tarpon Springs government, this could serve as an asset and a liability in his campaign. The 32-year city resident knows he has made both friends and enemies.

And the years he served the city saw plenty of controversy, from fights over whether to sell Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, to a damning grand jury investigation into corruption charges, which Elliott says began after he left.

Part of the city attorney's job is to "take the heat for the politicians," he said.

Eckhouse is confronting the opposite challenge Elliott faces. Having lived in Tarpon for a little more than two years, he has to fight for name recognition.

It helps that he and his wife restored the very visible home on Spring Bayou. But Eckhouse, an avid follower of local politics since his youth, has also thrown himself into the community.

He jokes that "the mayor's attended almost as many (meetings) as I have" and he has served for more than a year on the Planning and Zoning Board.

A proponent of the "smart code" growth management concept, Eckhouse would like to promote more mixed-use development, high densities and historic preservation in Tarpon.

Such growth strategies "will serve to increase Tarpon's aesthetic appeal and overall downtown economic enhancement," he wrote in a candidate questionnaire.

He described the budget situation as a "bit of a moving target" and said in addition to cost-cutting measures, such as freezing open staff positions, the city should more actively promote its assets.

Eckhouse also strongly supports the project to build a reverse osmosis water plant in Tarpon Springs and has been working with the Sponge Docks Merchants Association to create marketing techniques.

The docks have started to look "a little tired," he said, and improvements, such as regular Greek dance performances, sponging demonstrations and eventually, a hotel or restaurant in the old Pappas' building, could draw more tourists to the area.

Slattery also wants to see the docks spruced up. In fact, she would like a makeover for much of the city.

The Tarpon High School graduate and longtime resident says much of the city's infrastructure is in disrepair. Roads are crumbling and about 30 percent of residents use septic systems, she said.

Revitalizing the city and trying to attract some big name stores downtown could boost the city's economy, she said. Slattery would not, however, want one of those stores to be the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter on the Anclote River. She was a founding member of Friends of the Anclote, the group opposing the project.

"Putting a Wal-Mart Supercenter on our river is not going to improve the quality of life," she said.

But investing some money to make money could.

While the budget may be tight "there's never a right time," for beautification projects. "You have to find time."

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Herb Elliott, 61

Occupation: attorney, partial owner of Amity Title Inc.

Community involvement: Tarpon Springs Rotary, Tarpon Springs Boys and Girls Club, Chairman of the Tarpon Springs Charter Review Commission, Pinellas County VAS special master.

Source of income: Law practice and Amity Title Inc.

Assets: property, stocks, bonds, annuities

Liabilities: none.

Web site: none.

Tod Eckhouse, 60

Family: wife, Louise; daughter, Erin, 28

Occupation: real estate broker and investor

Community involvement: Tarpon Springs Planning and Zoning Board, Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce (board of directors), Tarpon Springs Rotary Club.

Source of income: Steiner Realty Group, Grey Hawk Real Estate Holdings LLC.

Assets: property, stocks.

Liabilities: bank loan.

Web site: www.TodEckhouse.com

Susan Slattery, 43

Family: husband, Kevin; son, Matthew, 17

Occupation: mortgage broker and outsource mortgage processor.

Community involvement: Tarpon Springs High School PTSA (treasurer), Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce (ambassador), Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers.

Source of income: SKM Consulting Inc., Carson, Brown and Associates.

Assets: property, retirement account.

Liabilities: mortgage, credit cards, loan.

Web site: www.SusanSlattery2008.com

FAST FACTS

Also on the ballot

Tarpon Springs voters will be asked to sign off on three ballot questions. Here is a summary.

Item 1

The city wants to amend its lease with Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, allowing for the sale of property unnecessary for the hospital's operations. In return, the hospital will require from a developer the right to use 100 spaces in a parking garage.

Item 2

The city wants to amend its lease with Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital to delete an adjacent 1.6-acre city-owned parcel from the lease. The hospital will release its right of first refusal to the property.

Item 3

The city wants to amend its lease with Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital to permit the sale of a medical arts center in New Port Richey. The money obtained will be used for capital improvements to the hospital in Tarpon Springs.

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