LARGO – Candidates for several state and county officials at an Oct. 11 political forum discussed ways government can help businesses grow during the economic slowdown, among other issues.
The Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce breakfast event was held at Largo Medical Center. All candidates for state and county contested races were invited.
State Rep. Larry Ahern, R-St. Petersburg, who is seeking the District 66 seat, has served for two years in the Legislature.
Ahern serves on the Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee, among other committee assignments.
He said the Legislature passed some “great reforms,” recently such as lowering the taxes on 15,000 small businesses to help them survive in tough economic times.
Putting Florida back to work has been the Legislature’s toughest challenge, he said, especially with the loss of equity in the property tax base.
Noting his experience as a small business owner, Ahern said the House has many lawyers and insurance industry representatives, but “we don’t have that many small business owners.”
He said his skills help him to understand the “day-to-day struggles” of small business owners.
The private sector, Ahern said, has a lot of solutions for Florida’s problems and the state needs to involve it “in the things that government doesn’t do so well.”
He said in the first session he attended, the state was $4 billion short of revenue in a $70 billion budget.
“And we balanced it without raising anyone’s taxes or fees,” he said.
The Legislature took similar action in his second session.
“It’s tough to tell people no – it’s not in the budget. It takes leadership to do that,” he said.
His opponent, Mary Louise Ambrose of Belleair Bluffs, a Democrat, said she disagreed with most of Ahern’s comments.
“I’m running because I think Tallahassee is broken,” she said. “The give and take of ideas and the ability to compromise are the very basis of our government and they are completely absent from Tallahassee. Special interests rule.”
She said she is uniquely qualified to represent the district as an attorney and a small business owner, mother, wife and grandmother.
“It’s time we started funding our public schools, not taking the money and sending it to businesses that put profit before education,” she said.
She said the state needs to support firefighters, police, nurses and teachers.
“The burden of taxes should not be put on the hard-working middle class in order to fund billionaires and large corporations,” she said.
It’s time for lawmakers to stop claiming they don’t raise taxes and fees “when they’re dumping unfunded mandates on the cities and the counties,” Ambrose said.
Ben Farrell, a Clearwater Democrat running for state representative, District 67, also touted his small business experience. His family has operated a restaurant on U.S. Highway 19 for 35 years and he also was involved in butcher shops that spread to five states. He later became a furniture maker.
“My idea to get things rolling is to go to small business people and who can offer real middle class jobs, $40,000 to $50,000 jobs, and find out from them what it takes to hire one person, two people, maybe 10 percent of their payroll and help them. Because if we are going to subsidize anybody, we might as well subsidize the things we need,” Farrell said.
The middle class jobs provide the income so that people have spending money.
“This state lives and dies on sales taxes,” he said, so the state needs people to buy vehicles, houses and other goods.
His opponent, Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, did not attend the forum.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, who is running for the District 20 seat, said he recently has worked on economic development issues.
Latvala said he has tried to identify the needs specific companies in Pinellas County have to allow them, either through regulatory changes or state contracting mechanisms, to add new employees.
“We’ve had a lot of success with that,” Latvala said.
He has also worked in consolidating governments, such as combining agencies to reduce police departments within the agencies, saving money, he said.
His opponent, Ashley Rhodes-Courter, a St. Petersburg Democrat, did not attend the forum.
Dwight Dudley, a St. Petersburg Democrat running for state representative, District 68, worked on a legislative committee staff as an analyst for four years. He now runs a law firm.
“So I got to see how the sausage is made,” he said.
He was critical of special interests in Tallahassee, singling out utility taxes.
“Progress Energy is taxing us like crazy,” Dudley said.
He called a utility tax the Legislature passed that allows utilities to charge Floridians in advance to build power plants “the Farkas fee,” saying that his opponent, Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, voted for the tax twice. Dudley wants to repeal the tax.
“We are on the hook for about $3.5 billion. This isn’t just a rant against nuclear power. But why are we citizens paying for that? It’s hurting business,” he said.
Farkas didn’t attend the forum.
Jessica Ehrlich, a St. Petersburg Democrat running for U.S. representative, District 13, said she is “frustrated by what is happening and not happening in Congress.”
“After almost five decades of the same leadership under Congressman Young, it is simply time for a change,” she said, “and a fresh approach to the problems we are now facing.”
Ehrlich, who has practiced law and has worked for a former congressman, worked in New York City on 9/11 and was “on the ground when the Trade Center collapsed.”
“It was a hugely transformational time for me, and I decided the next day to go into public service because I wanted to do something I felt would make a difference for our country,” she said.
Her opponent, Young, did not attend the forum.
District 1 County Commissioner Neil Brickfield, a Safety Harbor Republican, said to accomplish goals during recent years of declining revenue “we [commissioners] had to question everything we did as a government – small things to big things.”
He talked about consolidating certain functions, such as merging five different GIS divisions into one that serves the whole county.
The county has two buildings with personnel who handle 911 calls – one for emergency medical operators and the other for police emergency operators.
The 12 county commissioners and the constitutional officers agreed that’s “priority one. When we get the sheriff’s new operation center open, we’re having a 911 center with one set of operators who are trained for all of it,” Brickfield said.
Moving forward, the long-term strategic plan is to determine what core services county government has to provide and how county government can best provide it, Brickfield said.
“If we are not the best at it, how do we find someone who can do it better than we can for the same amount of money,” Brickfield said.
He said the 24 cities in the county are going to collaborate with county government wherever possible to save money. He also said determining how to get a high-performing workforce is a priority.
Janet Long, a Seminole Democrat, is running against Brickfield for the at-large seat.
She said she has served in many different areas of public service for 30 years, including as deputy insurance commissioner, state legislator and Seminole city councilor.
“My leadership skills were honed during the debacle of Hurricane Andrew and no-name storm, and it was our team in Pinellas County that was one of the first people into Homestead after Hurricane Andrew, and I could have cared less then whether people were Republicans or Democrats. All I cared about was [helping people].”
She there is no question that the “big elephant in the room for our county” is fire and emergency medical services.
“I think that every elected official in the room probably knows what the answers are. In our county we have spent another $300,000 for another study,” Long said.
When the recommendations are made, the county will have to authorize another study to find out how much it will cost to implement the study it had just conducted.
She said that while Brickfield “likes to tell you he has watched everything dollar by dollar, line by line, he fails to tell you that last year they raised the EMS side of the budget by 46 percent, and they will raise it again this year and every year in the future until we make some decisions about how to reorganize this system and cut out all the unbelievable amount of money going into the duplicative services we have across the county.”
District 3 County Commissioner Nancy Bostock, a Clearwater Republican, said that when “somebody throws out that the commission raised your EMS taxes 46 percent, that it true, but that doesn’t mean all seven of your commissioners voted for it. You have two of your incumbent commissioners here who did not vote for that tax increase.”
Elected in 2008, Bostock said she “has listened and has learned, and I have stood strong for you, your pocketbook and your priorities.” As a former Pinellas County School Board member, she said she has a lot of experience with tight budgets.
“I knew we faced some serious economic challenges, and we needed to dramatically change the way” county government looked at its spending.
“We must prioritize services that affect our safety,” Bostock said. “Things like law enforcement, disaster preparedness, emergency medical services – services we don’t necessarily think about, like our sewers, solid waste facilities, stormwater management, and services that affect our quality of life, like our beautiful beaches, our parks, our roads.”
She said the board has made tough decisions in the past four years, continues to provide high-quality essential services for the community and has improved the county’s budgeting process.
Her opponent for the at-large seat is Charlie Justice, a St. Petersburg Democrat who is coordinator of leadership development and programming at USF St. Petersburg. He is a former state senator and representative.
Justice said he’s running for County Commission “because he loves Pinellas County and I want to make things better.”
He believes county should have fluoride in its drinking water.
“Fluoride is one of the best public health decisions we can make for those who are impoverished and need that benefit,” he said.
He said that after County Commission made the decision to remove fluoride from the water, he received three phone calls from businessmen who were concerned that the commission “was going backwards – that it was taking Pinellas County to a place that we didn’t want to go. That we were going to be looked at as backwoods, not only backwards.”
“That’s not the kind of thing that brings new businesses and new entrepreneurs here to Pinellas County,” Justice said.
District 1 School Board member Janet Clark of St. Petersburg said when she ran for her seat in 2004, her goals included to “get the district to listen to teachers, to make classroom spending a priority and eliminate our top-down management style that had been hurting morale in the district.”
“Well, fast forward to today, despite difficulties we are moving in the right direction,” Clark said.
While the board has cut $167 million from the district’s budget in the past five years, classroom spending has increased from 59 percent of the operating budget to 65 percent.
“I think we have done a very good job of rearranging our resources, cutting where we needed to, putting our money where our mouths are, which is in education,” she said.
She said the new superintendent, Michael Grego, who started a couple of weeks ago is “already making inroads and mending some relationships and doing a real good job for us.”
She also said she is dedicated to “100 percent student success,” but also to “living within our means while we provide for our classrooms.”
Her opponent, Elliot Stern, of Palm Harbor said the district faces a number of issues, such as third-grade reading literacy, high school graduation rates, bullying and fiscal management of the school system.
He retired about four years ago from Raymond James as senior vice president, managing 150 staff members and a $40 million line item annual budget.
He said the School Board has a $1.2 billion budget “and as a School Board member I can assure you that I will look at it in the same fashion as I did at Raymond James, line item by line item.”
He said he is “passionate” about running for School Board, having been involved in education for many years as a volunteer, bringing mentors and tutors from Raymond James to an elementary school.
“We brought some innovative programs to the school. We went from a D to a C to a B to an A,” Stern said.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, an East Lake Republican, said he has worked in the Sheriff’s Office in a variety of operations, leaving to go to law school before Sheriff Jim Coats asked him to return in 2006. Coats later asked him to serve as chief deputy.
When Coats retired last year, the governor appointed Gualtieri sheriff.
In the past few years, the Sheriff’s Office has had to make a lot of hard and unpopular decisions that sometimes affect levels of services, Gualtieri said.
“Because you just can’t do it the same way when you don’t have the money you once had,” Gualtieri said.
In the last four years, the office has cut the general fund budget by $108 million, has eliminated 616 positions and has closed seven housing units in the jail.
“So we are a much different agency. We are a much leaner agency, but we can’t do as much as we did. But at the same time, at the end of the day, when the rhetoric stops and all the discussion stops, the sheriff has one job. That’s to make Pinellas County safe, and we are doing that,” Gualtieri said.
Over the last three years, in the agency’s service area, crime is down 12 percent, arrests are up by 28 percent, and “we have 100 percent case closure on homicides, where the national average is 65 percent.”
Gualtieri’s opponent, Scott Swope, a Palm Harbor Democrat, started working for the Sheriff’s Office when he was 19 years old in 1988.
He worked his way through college and has been practicing as a lawyer for the past 15 years in the county. He spent seven years as a traffic court hearing officer.
Swope said some of the programs that have been cut at the Sheriff’s Office he would reinstate. One is the fugitive section, which a team of detectives that were responsible for serving arrest warrants.
He also took issue with the elimination of the DUI enforcement squad, the full-time human trafficking force detective’s position and cold-case homicide detective’s positions.
As far as the decrease in the crime rate, “the crime rate is down across Florida and Tampa Bay. But we are not doing as well in Pinellas County.”
“In Hillsborough County, the crime rate is down twice what it is here in Pinellas,” he said.