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    Council forum focuses on tax, neighborhood

    Seminole Gardens residents quiz candidates on local security, Penny tax spending and noise from Seminole Mall.

    By MAUREEN BYRNE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2001


    SEMINOLE -- The candidates -- three incumbents and one newcomer -- sat at a table on the stage inside the Seminole Gardens clubhouse. A light shone on each of their names, which were on sheets of paper and attached to a table skirt.

    A moderator stood at a podium between the candidates. Evalyn Leonberger announced the rules of the forum, sponsored by the Seminole Gardens Community Club.

    About 45 people sat in the audience, most of them residents of the Gardens, a large retirement complex. They had gathered at the clubhouse for the first -- and possibly the only -- candidates forum for the city's March 6 election.

    Newcomer Leo Mutchler and incumbents Paul Trexler, Patricia Hartstein and Pete Bengston are vying for three City Council seats. Mayor Dottie Reeder automatically was re-elected after no challengers came forward.

    During the hourlong forum Wednesday, four questions were asked. None dealt with the city's major issues, such as the city's annexation policy. They instead ranged from specific neighborhood gripes to public spending projects that aren't controlled by the city.

    Ruth Kraiker, a retired nurse who has lived in the Gardens for 22 years, asked what could be done to get rid of the noise from nearby Seminole Mall. Especially the ruckus caused by early morning trash pickup.

    "I can count on being awakened every morning between 4 and 5 a.m.," Mrs. Kraiker, 85, said.

    Bengston said he was unaware there was a noise problem at the mall, but he asked Mrs. Kraiker to talk with him after the forum so he could inform the city staff.

    "I will follow it up for you, and I will get back to you personally after the city checks it out," Bengston said.

    Perhaps Seminole's community police officer could set up a surveillance at the mall to see who's causing the noise, suggested Hartstein.

    Trexler said the city has noise ordinances and he would report the complaint to the city manager.

    Mutchler, a resident of Seminole Gardens, said he had a trash bin at the mall removed because people were dumping trash in it in the middle of the night. He also accused Kmart of improperly storing piles of debris in its parking lot.

    Before Mutchler could continue he was quickly interrupted by the moderator, who told him he was straying from the question.

    Jack Kasdan, who has lived at Seminole Gardens since November, asked the incumbents why the city wasn't more involved in the county's management of the Penny for Pinellas tax. "I was appalled to find out that the city of Seminole did not know what the county of Pinellas was doing with the Penny for Pinellas," Kasdan, 75, said.

    County staff members have said that $122.9-million in Penny projects that originally were planned for the next 10 years will need to be pushed beyond 2010 because earlier Penny spending outpaced revenues.

    The mismanagement of the tax was a "well-kept secret," Hartstein said. The county and city each have their own Penny projects, she said.

    "If you go check our money, you'll find out our Penny for Pinellas money is very well managed," Hartstein said.

    Trexler said he voted against the renewal of the Penny tax in 1997 because he feared the tax would be overspent. He said he doesn't approve of the county's and other municipalities' spending habits, but that his main concern is how Seminole's taxpayers money is spent.

    Bengston said residents had the power to shake things up at the county level by voting commissioners out of office.

    Another audience member asked Mutchler why residents should vote for him and oust one of the incumbents.

    Mutchler said his main reason for running for office is tax equity. He said the city is not getting its fair share of tax dollars coming into the county or state. Projects in other parts of the county are getting too much public money, to the detriment of Seminole, he said.

    More political involvement is required of Seminole elected officials to change things, he said. Because he is the only candidate who is retired, he could attend daytime meetings, he said.

    "I just think I can bring another energy and another perspective to what they've been doing very well," Mutchler said.

    Dot Halker, a 10-year resident of Seminole Gardens, asked the candidates if a sheriff's deputy could patrol the complex on a regular basis. She said rowdy youths coming from the mall on their bikes and scooters often take up the entire sidewalk.

    Bengston, Trexler and Hartstein said the complex should arrange a meeting with the city's community police officer so the Sheriff's Office can handle the problem.

    - Staff writer Maureen Byrne can be reached at 445-4163 or at byrne@sptimes.com.

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