Pinellas County Commission candidates talk issues, among them rail and Rays

In response to charges that the commission spent excessively during her decade as a member, Latvala said previous years’ budgets were appropriate considering the amount of available revenue. When people talk about “right-sizing” the budget – a favorite buzzword among those who discuss the matter – now, it’s really just a process of “re-right-sizing” it to reflect declining funds, she said. Factors such as Amendment One, which caps property taxes, make this more difficult, limiting the commission’s options when writing a budget, she said.

To facilitate job growth, Latvala said the first step should be removing barriers, such as permitting, for businesses whenever possible. Asked what she has done to ward off unemployment, she spoke of protecting the Department of Economic Development budget, which the commission “kept whole as much as possible,” she said.

Like Hackworth, Latvala said she supports bringing rail to the area, though she doesn’t know “how or if it will ever be funded.” She was the one candidate not to weigh in on the prospect of a penny tax for rail or the Rays issue.

The strongest advocate of the evening for rail and keeping the Rays was Calvin Harris, the Democratic 12-year incumbent in the at-large District 2 seat, who stressed his longtime interest in transit improvement. In his view, much of Pinellas’s economic future hinges on rail and the Rays, as well as improved bus transit.

That leaves Norm Roche, Harris’ Republican opponent, as the only candidate opposed to the rail project. He said the “Build-it-and-they-will-ride” approach just won’t work. Concerning the Rays, he said if the team and citizens want a new stadium, he would support it, though he has reservations about the idea.

The ever-resilient Roche, who ran unsuccessfully for the commission seats in 2004, 2006 and 2008, at times as a Democrat, presents himself as someone who is not politically correct or “here to get along.”

Of all the candidates, Roche was most critical of the commission’s spending in recent years, at one point posing a rhetorical question to the incumbents on stage. “And if we’ve just begun to right-size,” he said, “what have we been doing for the decade you’ve been there ? Wrong-sizing?"

Asked his views on consolidating services, especially related to fire, EMS and police, he said fire and EMS have been politicized for too long. He criticized the commission’s use of reserve money to fill the EMS budget gap, saying, “We cannot continue to push this off and use reserve funds to protect ourselves during election time.”

Roche also urged consolidating departments such as public works and utilities. When asked, Roche said he’s opposed to offshore drilling, as is probably any Pinellas legislator, he said.

Roche, like the other candidates, said he’s generally opposed to new taxes.

On that issue, those speaking could all find common cause.

If the Pinellas County Commission candidates agree on one thing it’s this: Voters have clear choices come November 2. With election day creeping up, the candidates distinguished themselves on issues such as high-speed rail, the Rays and development Tuesday night at a forum organized by the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce.

To the few dozen in attendance, they framed those choices in different ways.

Former Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth, the Democratic candidate running against Republican 10-year incumbent Susan Latvala in District 4, tried this election season’s popular outsider mantle on for size, describing himself as a citizen legislator – not a politician – who would champion fiscal responsibility.

He said he won’t fear sticking his neck out on unpopular issues, doing what it takes to keep the Rays and develop high-speed rail. He supports a one-cent tax to fund the latter, saying he doesn’t know of any other way to bring the project to fruition.

The forum was informative and at times contentious. In his opening statement, Hackworth accused Latvala of funding her campaign primarily with money from special interests and PACs, and raising taxes during her time on the commission – two “inaccuracies” Latvala denied, saying she’s proud of her donors and that she raised taxes only once, on unincorporated areas for infrastructure.

That line of attack is not new for Hackworth. To compliment it and bolster his special interest-free image, he said he accepts a maximum of only $100, from only individual contributors – a self-imposed rule he has arguably bent.

Although he distanced himself from the label of politician, Hackworth offered his record as Mayor of Dunedin as proof of the type of fiscal responsibility he would practice as a commission member.

Defending her legacy, Latvala touted her accomplishments with Tampa Bay Water and on education issues and eliminating “pill mills.” She told the audience she’s running for re-election because people need strong, consistent leadership in tough economic times.

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