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Race for mayor focuses on taxes

Candidates at two forums talk of keeping a lid on taxes and improving Pinellas schools.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Taxes took center stage Monday for the first time in the mayoral campaign, and the nine people running to lead St. Petersburg generally sang the chorus of the election year politician.

They promised to push down taxes and fees by finding more savings in the city budget.

"We need to do everything we can to reduce the (city property tax) rate a little bit at a time," candidate Rick Baker told the audience of more than 100 squeezed into a tiny room at the Walter Fuller Recreation Center.

The two City Council members running for mayor, Larry Williams and Kathleen Ford, noted that the property tax rate has slowly dropped during their tenure. The mayor recommends the tax rate, and the City Council has final authority.

While the candidates would like to see taxes fall, they warned that is more difficult than it sounds.

Williams noted that other taxes and fees and utility rates have gone up in the meantime, and Ford warned that expensive items such as repairs to water and sewer systems loom in the future, requiring more fee increases.

"It's more expensive to live in St. Petersburg than five or 10 years ago," Williams said ruefully.

The city has among the highest taxes around, and Nurse said he would reduce the burden, perhaps by rewarding department heads who spend less each year than their budgets authorize.

"In the long term, St. Petersburg cannot have the highest taxes of surrounding areas," he said. "We will continue to have middle-class flight."

The evening forum was the second part of a western St. Petersburg doubleheader. The first part was at St. Petersburg Junior College at 66th Street and Fifth Avenue N at 12:30 p.m.

Omali Yeshitela did not attend the night event but banged on his opponents at midday, saying he represents a novel choice for voters.

"I don't think the city wants another (Mayor) David Fischer, short or tall," said Yeshitela, a longtime social activist and the leader of a black socialist group.

Yeshitela apparently was referring to Rick Baker, who is built like a college basketball forward, and to Karl Nurse and Larry Williams, both of whom would have a lot of shots blocked by players the heights of Baker and Yeshitela.

The crowd of college students in the auditorium fluctuated between 35 and 120 during the two-hour forum. They asked the candidates several questions about education.

For instance, does the mayor really have the power to affect public schools?

Yeshitela espoused "struggling" with Pinellas County schools. Last week, he promised to "be at the forefront, screaming, yelling and kicking" to reverse a dangerous trend of below-average achievement by black and poor students. Yeshitela said more diverse textbooks are needed so each student "can see himself or herself in the books."

Baker's promise to lobby for better schools is one of the four points of his platform. Although he acknowledged he would have to ask and hope the School Board listens, he said he would appoint one staffer in his administration to watch the school district.

Ford picked up on the idea and promised a schools liaison. She said the city should team up with the school district to share more sports fields and libraries between school and recreational programs.

Candidate Ronnie Beck and Nurse think a mayor's ability to influence the district is limited.

"We need to separate rhetoric from reality -- the mayor is not the chair of the School Board," Nurse said. "You can't have much impact."

But Nurse said he would use the mayor's powers to force the school district's hand when possible. For example, he would cite aging school buildings with code violations to prompt the district to fix or replace them.

The primary Feb. 27 will narrow the field to two for the March 27 general election.

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