GOP Pinellas Commission hopefuls talk budget

08/04/10 Kate Bradshaw
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With less than three weeks left until the August 24 primary election, candidates facing primaries are in the final stretch. Today WMNF spoke with three GOP contenders for the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners’ District Four seat.

It includes north county communities like Tarpon Springs and Palm Harbor. The county’s projected $40 million budget shortfall for 2011 seemed to be on everyone’s mind. Carl Folkman, one of incumbent Susan Latvala’s challengers, said the county commission spent like crazy during the boom years, and he’d like to see an audit to find out where the money went.

"Governments don't create revenue. They collect taxes from the average tax payers out there, and they spend them. That's what they do. Unfortunately, our county government, in Pinellas County, did it way too well."

Former Tarpon Springs Mayor Beverley Billiris is also vying for the seat. She said she’d also like to see a forensic audit, and cited as an example the recent revelation that the county was outsourcing its printing when it could have been done much more cheaply in-house.

"We were told that the county had stripped everything to the bare bone, in the budget process this year. However, an audit proved that over several years, including this year, they were outsourcing their printing."

But Latvala, who came under fire after saying she was open to raising property taxes if her colleagues approached a consensus on the issue, defended how the commission handled the county budget.

"It's not like there's an irresponsible act that's gone on that's made this happen. It's the economy and what's going on in our entire country, but is even worse in the state of Florida. both of my opponents keep acting like this is something that the Board of County Commissioners did. Well, every city in Pinellas County is facing the same challenges."

She said there have actually been some pretty smart moves on the part of herself and her colleagues in recent budget years.

"We lowered taxes 0.7 of a mil in 2007,and started downsizing the government, even before that."

The commission ruffled some feathers this past spring when they approved fees for county parks, including Fort DeSoto. Folkman said the fees are a double-tax.

"People need the parks so badly, right now, especially with the economy. Places where they can go and enjoy family time, where it doesn't cost a lot of money. Now the county is looking at charging for the parks. I look at that, as a candidate, and say [that] the taxpayers already paying for it, it's called taxes, ladies and gentlemen. That's what we have."

Billiris agrees with Folkman.

"I would like to see that we could find sponsorships. You know, a large corporation, partnership, with their logo at the park. This park has been adopted by ... . Just think out of the box. Pick up more volunteerism. Finding other ways to do it, without taking that away."

But Susan Latvala, who is seeking her second term, says the parks are not a completely necessary service.

"Well, I don't consider it a double tax. It's just part of what's going on in this economy. Parks are totally non-mandatory, and much of what county government does is mandatory. So, we had to look at our budget in that way. Yes, people have already paid for the parks, but they haven't paid for the annual maintenance of those parks. That's what this fee will offset. It's a parking fee, it's not an entrance fee."

Pinellas County recently launched a transportation task force to study the feasibility of a mass transit overhaul that may include light rail. It parallels the group in Hillsborough, whose study ultimately resulted in a proposed penny-per-dollar sales tax that county’s voters may adopt in November. Folkman said rail will probably not go over as well in Florida as it has in regions like the Northeast.

"I think that you have to come back, and really have a good study of who's going to use light rail. Our county, unfortunately, is known to go and do projects and put all the money out for these projects, and have to go back to the taxpayer and say: "Oh, sorry. We don't receive the tax revenues that we thought." Now, it's on the taxpayer's back to pay for it."

Billiris said while she would support posing the question of a rail tax to voters, she doesn’t want to levy any new taxes on Pinellas residents.

"People are having a tough time. Any additional taxation would be difficult for me to issue to residents. I think that I would not favor an additional sales tax to fund that."

Latvala said that if a high-speed rail line actually gets built between Tampa and Orlando, a transit system connecting Pinellas to Tampa would be vital.

"I'm supportive of moving forward with it. Pinellas County, if this rail is actually built between Tampa and Orlando, needs to connect to that. Or we're going to be this isolated appendage sticking out the side of Florida."

The District Four seat is the only Pinellas Commission seat with an August 24 primary. The winner of this race will face Democrat Bob Hackworth, formerly the mayor of Dunedin, in the November 2 General Election.

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