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Saving pennies also pinched people's feelings

By LOGAN D. MABE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 16, 2000


NORTHDALE -- You can say this for George Helmstetter: He went out with a bang.

The tenacious and tempestuous Northdale Special Tax District trustee was removed from office this week in a narrow vote that reflected the deep split among board members.

The board had debated the issue for two months, and Helmstetter defended his actions at every opportunity. But in the end, five of the nine members wanted him gone.

Now that his seat on the board is vacant, Northdale residents can apply for the job. Anyone interested can send a resume to the district (Northdale Special Tax District, PO Box 340024, Tampa, FL, 33694-0024; or fax to (813) 960-7722). Current board members will hear from applicants at their next meeting July 10 and vote to select one.

From the beginning, Helmstetter came loaded for bear. As a resident, he helped lead the fight in 1997 to defeat a proposal raising the tax cap from $100 to $200 per home. Then, in 1998, he was elected to the board and professed his dislike for president Kevin Ambler.

"I want Mr. Ambler out of there as president," Helmstetter said at the time. "He's the last of the big-time spenders."

Helmstetter contended that the board spent money unwisely, and he led the campaign to prevent the board from raising the tax cap.

Helmstetter and Ambler mixed it up again when Helmstetter told Ambler, "I'll nail you." Ambler interpreted the remark as a threat, and the board began hiring off-duty deputies to stand guard during the meetings.

Helmstetter said he meant he was going to nail Ambler in the election.

When he joined the board, Helmstetter said he could get along with Ambler "if he stops being a dictator." But the two didn't get along, and Helmstetter made the same observation just before the vote to remove him Monday night.

"You are a total dictator on this board," Helmstetter told Ambler.

During his tenure, Helmstetter had a penchant for pinching pennies and carefully watching how the money was spent. But he took it to the extreme, said board member Manuel Garcia, who made the motion to remove Helmstetter.

Bickering over how to spend district money had bogged down meetings to the point that projects were being delayed, said Ambler.

The final straw came in April when Helmstetter went after district property manager Diane Montgomery and a contractor doing business with the district.

Ms. Montgomery and Charles Strazzullo, a manager for Ecosystem Management, said Helmstetter became "abusive and irrational" in a meeting to discuss lake maintenance.

In a letter to the district, Strazzullo described Helmstetter as being "extremely rude, irritating and confrontational. In 10 years of doing business in Florida, I have never been spoken to by a client quite like that. If I have to deal with this man again . . . I'm afraid I will have to discontinue services and terminate our contract."

Ms. Montgomery wrote that "this type of aberrant behavior has reached an intolerable level."

Helmstetter countered by sending an e-mail message to County Commissioner Jan Platt saying, "I have what I consider a reasonable suspicion, no evidence, that there may be some payoffs and or kickbacks among the contractor and Ms. Montgomery. She continually uses the same contractors and cheats on the bids."

Ms. Montgomery denied Helmstetter's allegations.

By Monday night, Helmstetter's critics were resolved to remove him, and discussion was kept to a minimum.

-- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 226-3464 or mabe@sptimes.com.

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