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Residents weigh in on community values
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LARGO – Largo commissioners pressed city staff May 6 to make sure that the priorities expressed by the more than 1,100 residents and business owners who participated in this year’s Community Values campaign would be implemented in the city’s plans moving forward.

“They want to know that we’re actually listening to them, and following through with what they want to see done,” Commissioner Jamie Robinson said, explaining the sentiments expressed in one of three small-group forums the city called “Community Conversations.”

The conversations, featuring seven to 20 people each, attracted a diverse group of participants, said management analyst Meridy Semones, who presented the campaign’s findings.

“Everyone’s message was consistent that getting around Largo was the biggest issue,” she explained. “They expressed the need for better connected and higher quality sidewalks and trails. They also want safer crosswalks and improved signage and longer timers to cross the streets. They want better public transportation options, and participants overwhelmingly favored wider sidewalks as opposed to bike lanes, because they did not feel safe riding their bikes in the street.”

Participants in the conversations also said Largo had a “lack of identity,” with too many big-box developments and gas stations, Semones said. The city’s downtown and overall borders were not well defined, and they asked the city for better marketing, communication and an improved website.

One of the concrete requests in the survey was for a farmer’s market, with more than half of the 1,098 respondents choosing that as a community event or festival they’d like to see in Largo. More seasonal and holiday events was a close second selection, with art festivals, food/wine/beer festivals and family events soliciting 431, 392 and 370 votes, respectively.

Many respondents, specifically 340, said they would like to see the development of more restaurants. More than 200 also ranked parks and recreation, single-family homes and retail development as priorities for the city. In a follow-up, open-ended question, 21 respondents called for existing development to be improved while 14 asked for better sidewalks, roads and public transportation.

The city also asked topical questions about several ongoing issues. First, the survey asked if residents were willing to pay higher taxes to keep the same level EMS service, “in response Pinellas County’s proposed EMS budget reduction.” The majority weren’t sure or didn’t respond, but 274 said they would pay higher taxes, while 138 respondents said they would prefer to pay the same taxes for a lower level of service.

The city also targeted what residents thought of the Penny for Pinellas. About 53 percent said they supported the continuation of the sales tax, with 33 percent not responding at all. The city correlated some respondents’ answers across one or more questions.

“Eighty percent of survey respondents support the continuation of the Penny for Pinellas regardless of whether they know how the existing Penny for Pinellas is used,” Semones said.

The city also asked essentially the same question two ways: “Would you support a 1-cent sales tax increase to improve mass transportation?” and “Would you support a 1 percent sales tax increase to implement ‘Greenlight Pinellas?’” About 28 percent said “yes” to the former question with about 14 percent saying they weren’t sure. Just under 16 percent answered “yes” to the latter question with 31 percent stating they were unsure. A third of those surveyed didn’t respond to either question.

The city also asked about flooding. Of the respondents, 215 said flooding and drainage was a problem in Largo.

“Respondents (who) felt that flooding is a problem in Largo were less likely to feel they were receiving good value for their tax dollars,” Semones said.

Assistant City Manager Henry Schubert said the city intended to expand its Community Values campaign next year, particularly the Community Conversations.

The results of the campaign sparked a conversation about the city’s reputation for being unfriendly to businesses. Commissioner Curtis Holmes said that reputation had proved persistent, despite the city taking steps to reverse it.

“We did have a very bad reputation, and we got to hear it every day for many years,” Mayor Pat Gerard said. “It takes a long time to overcome that.”

Gerard also said the city was fighting the perception against contractors who still might use the city as a scapegoat when explaining to business owners the reasons for delays.

“They like to blame us because we’re easy,” she said.

Commissioners also talked about moving their workshops to a location outside of City Hall once a quarter, as a way to draw the community into their discussions.

Commissioner Woody Brown said the city was moving into a different financial position, where the priorities identified in the values campaign helped the city figure out, not what to cut, but what would improve the services it provides to residents.

“I’d like to have some ideas from staff on how we’re going to start to implement some of these things that the residents want,” he said.
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