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Madeira Beach candidates debate issues
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MADEIRA BEACH – Candidates for mayor and city commissioner District 2 got the opportunity to express their views on a variety of topics at a forum discussion held Feb. 26 at Madeira Beach City Hall.

In the mayor’s race, Dr. Victor Cucaro, an oriental medicine practitioner, is challenging Mayor Travis Palladeno, who is seeking a second term. District 2 Commissioner Nancy Hodges is facing William “Billy” Wright, senior vice commander of the local VFW post. The mayoral term is three years, while the commissioners serve two-year terms and are elected by a citywide vote.

The forum was sponsored by the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce and hosted by Chamber CEO Robin Sollie. The candidates were asked to make opening statements, then answered a series of questions posed by Sollie. From the outset, the discussion was lively, and revealed widely differing views of the city’s current viability and future direction.

In the opening remarks, the candidates were asked to talk about themselves, their platform and the issues important to them. A maximum of three minutes was allowed to answer each question.

Wright said city residents are more interested in getting a pothole fixed, a renovated park and better services than having a grandiose city hall.

“The bigger issue is voters aren’t getting a lot of bang for the buck,” he said. Wright cited major problems other cities are having and said, “Don’t think it can’t happen here.” Wright said the city must practice “stewardship for tomorrow.”

Problems with the city’s finances are the major concern, said Cucaro, sounding a theme he would return to again and again. He said the problems need to be resolved or the city could possibly be facing bankruptcy.

Cucaro said city officials are giving out misinformation on the municipal complex project. He pointed out that the stated cost is $10 million, but the real cost is over $15 million when interest payments are included.

He also said city staff expenses have gone up from $500,000 in 2010 to $690,000 now.

“We have to think twice before spending because there is money going out and there is not much coming in,” he said. As a result, property taxes may have to be raised, Cucaro said.

Hodges said her background includes being owner of “a very successful insurance agency,” service on the city planning board, and 20 years residency in Madeira Beach. Those have been good qualifications to serve as a commissioner, she said.

“I really love the city, and work well with the city manager and staff, and the other commissioners,” Hodges said. “We’re a good team, and we’re getting things done.”

Hodges said projects she helped plan on the planning board have come through the commission and now are coming to life. A vote for her would help keep Madeira Beach on the move, Hodges said.

Palladeno said his term as mayor represents “a three-year track record of getting things done.” He pointed to road paving and stormwater projects, fixing beach walkovers and seawalls, improvements at Archibald Park, and the upcoming municipal complex. All were accomplished, he said, while the city maintained a balanced budget and the third lowest millage rate in Pinellas County.

He pointed out that bringing the Building Department back into the city is very successful. “It is bringing in more than it’s costing,” he said.

Value of tourism

Candidates were asked to comment on tourism’s worth to the city.

Cucaro’s response was once again focused on the city’s finances, and did not address the topic of tourism. He said the citizens should have peace of mind and “not go to any extreme to pay our taxes.”

Hodges, Palladeno and Wright all agreed tourism is important to Madeira Beach, to varying degrees.

Hodges said the beach communities depend on tourism. All of the changes happening in Madeira Beach – destination hotels and restaurants, John’s Pass Village and beach improvements – will bring more tourists to the city, she said.

Palladeno said he sits on the Tourist Development Council that has helped bring in $31 million a year in bed taxes to the county. He said he recently got $100,000 from those funds to refurbish the beach walkovers in Madeira Beach.

Income from parking fees in the city totals over $700,000 a year, he said. Palladeno cited all the improvements going on in the city that he said will attract tourists. “It’s vital to keep tourism going in Madeira Beach,” he said.

Wright has worked at Archibald Park and the VFW and said he understands tourism is a big deal.

“I love the hotel going up over here, the new condos that are going up on the beach and the new restaurant,” Wright said, but added he would like to put up a new convention center “rather than the Taj Mahal (municipal complex) on the water.”

County, state office holder relationships

The candidates’ relationship with city, county and state officials were the next topic discussed.

Hodges said she has met officials from other cities and “they’ve all been very impressed with Madeira Beach.” She said her associations with other officials are very enlightening.

Palladeno ticked off a number of public officials he said he knows well and works with, including County Commissioner John Morroni, State Representative Kathleen Peters, and State Senator Jeff Brandes. An especial concern is working with state officials to get flood insurance rates under control, he said.

Wright said he knows Palladeno, most of the city commissioners and Peters. “I’ve dealt with them.” He said he knows other people throughout the state and realizes the importance of networking and finding the appropriate people to work with.

Cucaro said he knows Commissioner Terry Lister and had “tons of correspondence” with the late Congressman Bill Young. Cucaro said, “The core of the city is all of you, all of us,” and made further comments about the importance of fiscal responsibility in city hall.

General public needs vs. neighborhood improvements

Spending money on projects such as Archibald Park versus neighborhood improvements was questioned. What would the candidates do to shift the focus to areas where the residents live?

Palladeno said Archibald Park renovations were paid for with Penny for Pinellas funds, which come from the county. City parks are being upgraded and improved, he said. “There is neighborhood beautification going on,” Palladeno said. “Is more needed? Absolutely.”

Wright said Archibald Park improvements, especially the Snack Shack cabin, needed to be done.

“The Snack Shack is the jewel in our crown,” he said. “The city saved it (from destruction). Why not refurbish it?”

Cucaro said the Archibald Park improvements were OK, but said the city will never get its money back from the investment.

“When government runs something that’s no good,” he said. Private interests do it better, he said.

Hodges pointed to drainage, road repairs and crosswalk projects as evidence the city has taken major steps to improve the infrastructure. She said passage of a nuisance ordinance has made the neighborhoods safer.

Is a municipal complex needed?

Does the city really need a complex the magnitude of the $10 million municipal center, whose cost represents the largest contract ever signed by the city of Madeira Beach?

Wright and Cucaro said no. Palladeno and Hodges said the project will benefit the city, and is money well spent.

“We don’t need such a sterling edifice,” said Wright. “It doesn’t have to be that opulent.”

He said a new fire station had to be done, but a functional “square box” city hall would have been enough. Wright urged residents to get involved, and not depend on a commission he called “a rubber stamp.”

Cucaro agreed with Wright. He said there is nothing wrong with the current city hall except a leaking roof and a lack of maintenance. Borrowing money over a 30-year period to pay for the complex “is a big problem,” Cucaro said. These types of decisions are made because there is no opposition on the commission, he said, which he referred to as “the ‘yes’es five.”

Hodges said she is proud of the planned new municipal complex, the entire project. The old city hall would be too costly to repair, she said. The new buildings have dual purposes. They and the ball fields will be revenue producers for the city, she said.

Palladeno stressed the municipal center was approved after several public meetings where the people said “go forward.” The city got a great deal on the financing, and the city manager and finance director worked hard to make the center happen.

Palladeno predicted the ball fields will bring thousands of tourists and generate lots of revenue for the city.

“This is all about us,” Palladeno said. “We are a tourist city. This is money well spent.”

Dealing with flood insurance effects

How should the city deal with declining tax revenue brought about by declining home values resulting from increases in flood insurance costs?

No one specifically answered the question. The candidates instead focused on flood control efforts being made by the city. Sollie later repeated the question, but the answers were similar.

Cucaro said money should be spent on flood prevention rather than building the municipal complex. He said repairing the city’s drainage system will cost $15 million “and we’re not going to have the money to pay for it.” He expressed concern that all of the projects the city is undertaking cannot be done without borrowing money or raising property taxes.

Hodges said the flood insurance cost increases are not the city’s fault and it is not just a local problem. “But we are taking steps to drain the water, and that’s beneficial,” she said.

Palladeno said Madeira Beach residents are getting up to 20 percent off their flood insurance because the city “has the best CRS (Community Rating System) numbers on the beaches.” The mayor said he is working with state officials to get the insurance costs down, and the city’s projects to clean and repair the outflow pipes “are taking care of things here at home.”

Wright called the flood insurance situation “a huge crisis,” and said more lobbying needs to be done in Tallahassee “to try and regulate it a little better.” Wright added that his own street, 140th Avenue, floods regularly.

Yes or no

Candidates were asked to give yes or no answers to the last series of questions.

Question 1: If you were elected, would you raise the millage rate if needed to pay for services? All said yes.

Question 2: Would you permit parking for events on the beach? “No” by all.

Question 3: Do you agree with the city’s current direction? Palladeno and Hodges said yes, Cucaro said no, and Wright gave a qualified “kind of yes.”

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