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    Candidates touch on library, annexation

    All six appear for a campaign forum leading up to the March 4 election. The mood was friendly but the lines were drawn: challengers vs. incumbents.

    By KELLEY BENHAM, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 20, 2003


    LARGO -- Candidates for Largo City Commission were cordial Wednesday night, but challengers clashed with incumbents on a few issues, including plans for a new library and the pace of the city's annexation.

    All six candidates appeared at the 90-minute televised forum sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and the Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce.

    In the March 4 election, former Commissioner Marty Shelby is challenging incumbent Bob Jackson for mayor, Tom Robbins is challenging incumbent Pat Gerard for Seat 3 and Ernie Bach is challenging incumbent Jean Halvorsen for Seat 4.

    The three challengers, who are not running on a ticket, questioned the city's plans for a new 93,000-square-foot library expected to cost more than $20-million. The incumbents insisted that residents need and want the library and the city can pay for it.

    Shelby, who stirred debate about the library before he resigned from the commission last month, said the issue is about asking the people how much library they are willing to pay for. "I'm not anti-library, I'm pro-referendum," he said. "It gets to a certain point where I say wait ... let the people decide their future."

    Jackson said Penny for Pinellas money will cover the costs and that putting the issue to referendum would amount to a confusing multiple choice question. He also said he doesn't want to raise taxes, but he would if he had to. "If we want to provide services for our city, we're going to have to pay for it," he said.

    Robbins questioned the operating expenses of a library he said would be the largest in a four-county area. Bach said he was nervous about relying on projected revenue that could fall through, and he suggested a library annex on the east side of the city. "Projects of this size and type absolutely require a popular vote by the people," he said.

    The challengers also said the city needs to slow down or rethink its annexation strategy, which has pushed Largo's boundaries to the east and south and prompted objections from the county government.

    It would be smarter to target enclaves than to continue to expand, said Bach, who criticized the commission for the failed attempt to annex Cove Cay, which he called a "debacle."

    Shelby used the term "fiasco" and said the commission needs to sweeten its approach in dealing with the county and slow its pace. Robbins criticized the one-house-at-a-time method and said police and fire departments can't keep track of rapidly changing boundaries.

    Jackson said annexation has brought in $880,000 in new taxes without additional service costs because the city already serves much of the unincorporated areas. Annexation is what builds the tax base without raising the tax rate, which has not risen in 11 years, he said. "We need the revenue of the nonresidents to pay for things we are already giving them."

    Gerard said the commission has made mistakes, but the problems can be worked out in the Pinellas Assembly process and the benefits outweigh the obstacles. Halvorsen said the city does plenty of research before it annexes.

    The candidates took a few shots at each other, but not many.

    Shelby said the current commission has grown "arrogant, insensitive, intolerant and out of touch with the people it represents." He promised to televise work sessions as well as commission meetings if elected.

    Jackson stood by his 30-year record on the commission and his nonconfrontational style, casting the blame for the city's recent turmoil toward his opponents and his supporters.

    "I have experience and a record of building relationships with residents of the community," he said. "Look at who has caused all the disruption that has gone on in the city in the last year."

    In the race for Seat 4, Bach said Halvorsen has been on the commission so long it has become like a "habit," and the commission needs his vigor and fresh approach. Halvorsen stressed her experience and the knowledge she has gained serving on committees in the county.

    For Seat 3, Robbins also promised more community outreach, saying he'd continue his campaign practice of chatting up residents outside grocery stores if elected. "Even a certain amount of turbulence can be healthy," he said. "Every opinion should be counted and every voice should be heard."

    Gerard, who is finishing her first term, pointed out that commissioner is the only elected position she has ever sought. Robbins has run for School Board and the state House of Representatives. "I take my job as a commissioner very seriously and I work hard at it," she said.

    -- Kelley Benham can be reached at 445-4174 or benham@sptimes.com .

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