SEMINOLE – Over the next few weeks, Seminole voters will vote via mail-in ballots or at the polls March 8 to elect two city councilors.
A field of four candidates – Chris Burke, Tom Christy, John Counts and Bob Matthews – will be seeking the two non-partisan, at-large seats.
Today The Beacon takes a look at the candidates with a series of questions designed to help residents make a better decision on Election Day.
Marital status: Married, 18 years to Maureen; two daughters.
Activities/employment: Employed as a sergeant with the Largo Police Department … coach of the Seminole under-14 girls soccer team … member of the St. Jerome Catholic Church … board member on the Quail Ridge Home Owners Association … former president of the School Advisory Committee at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School.
Bio: Native of Massachusetts … Moved to Pinellas County in 1979 and graduated from Seminole High School in 1982 … U.S. Army veteran … worked in cable TV and retail industries … started with the city of Largo in 1989 as a police dispatcher and later as a dispatch supervisor … served on the Largo Police Department for 16 years … graduated with high honors (3.98 grade-point average) from St. Petersburg Junior College … graduated with high honors (3.96 grade-point average) from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg campus with a bachelor’s degree in history.
Marital status: single, four children, two grandchildren.
Activities/employment: Semi-retired … works part-time for a security firm … former board member at Seminole Garden Apartments … member of St. Justin Martyr Catholic Church … member of the city’s most recent Charter Revision Committee.
Bio: Native of Buffalo, N.Y. … graduated from Bryant & Stratton College … served two terms on the city of Tonowanda, N.Y. City Council … lived in Seminole six years.
Marital status: Married, 14 years to Cynthia; one daughter, Jordan.
Activities/employment: Branch manager, Regions Bank, Pinellas Park … girls youth softball coach of the 14-under Tampa Bay Velocity … Junior Achievement teacher since 1987 … member of Pinellas County Schools Safety Transportation Board … a master Mason with Gulf Beaches Masonic Lodge 291.
Bio: Native of St. Petersburg … 1984 graduate of Lakewood High School … 1986 graduate of Santa Fe Community College … attended University of Florida and graduated in 1994 from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in business marketing … served on the City Council for seven years.
Marital status: Married, 41 years to Pat; two children, three grandchildren.
Activities/employment: Co-owner of Seminole Gardens Florist and Party Store … member of New Testament Baptist Church, Largo.
Bio: Native of Alvarado, Texas … lived in Alabama briefly and grew up in Miami … U.S. Air Force veteran … graduate of Pinellas Vocational Technical Institute … attended St. Petersburg College … Retired after 32½ years with Florida Power Corp. … Served on City Council for 20 years.
BURKE: I think the city needs a more proactive personality on the City Council to ensure growth and management of the city.
CHRISTY: I want to make a difference. One cannot do anything better than give back to their community. This council needs some new faces, some new blood. The city needs fresh minds and fresh ideas.
COUNTS: I want to continue the good work we’re doing on the City Council and represent all segments within our community. Each resident should have a voice within our community. That’s why I decided to run seven years ago.
MATTHEWS: My experience as a person, worker and business owner helps me make responsible fiscal decisions for the city. I feel like I’m doing what the people expect in a responsible way. I’m proud of my accomplishments with the city.
What strengths or skills would make you a positive addition to the city of Seminole?
BURKE: My military and police background gives me a very structured leadership style. My management experience gives me a budgetary background and my life experience gives me people skills needed in government.
CHRISTY: I have experience in both the public and private sectors. I’ve served in management all my life. So I understand the need to serve the public.
COUNTS: With my financial background, I bring a certain business sense and fiscal conservatism to the council.
MATTHEWS: As a business owner, I understand what it takes to spend money wisely. It also affords me an experience many do not have and is really needed to manage money properly. You need to manage money like it’s your own.
How will your past experience be of benefit to the average resident of Seminole?
BURKE: The average resident wants city government to pay more attention to their daily needs, which is mainly fiscal in nature. As a family man, I understand the need for proper budget and budget control, and a city is no different. These are challenging economic times for our residents and anything the city can do to put a dollar back in their pockets it should do so.
CHRISTY: I have over 30 years in management in the private sector. On the public side, I had the unique experience to serve on a strong city council. I’ve had the opportunity to serve on a strong council and with a strong mayor-manager.
COUNTS: Being a Pinellas County native, I have a unique insight into the needs and will of the community.
MATTHEWS: I’ve enjoyed serving with our first city manager (Frank Edmunds) and I think that position has blessed our city. Having served under a strong mayor and a city manager, I find the City Council does a good job providing the best service at the best price.
How would you improve Seminole?
BURKE: By taking away the barriers that prevent voluntary annexation into the city. Most notable is the franchise fee they charge on electric bills. The hotter or colder the weather, or how many cookies you bake, determines how much you pay the city. It’s the No. 1 reason people don’t want to join the city. It’s a consumption tax. The more you use, the more you pay. The city lowers the tax rate but increases the franchise fee.
CHRISTY: Economic development. A case in point is the Seminole Mall. Why aren’t we involved more? We should be involved at some level in the planning. The city needs to get control of the property in front of the mall (where a gasoline station was once located) and maybe put a clock tower out there.
COUNTS: In light of the current economy, we’ve found ourselves with a large number of foreclosures within our community and it’s incumbent upon us that those properties are properly maintained and all taxes are current. This is why I’m focused on us having our code enforcement staff keeping a close eye on the properties to protect the values of residents’ properties and to help keep Seminole in the state to which we’ve become accustomed to.
MATTHEWS: If we’re deficient, it would be finding better ways to communicate with the residents of Seminole. Transparency is crucial to trust. The more we build trust, the more people will inter-react with us and help us make better decisions.
If budget cuts are necessary in fiscal 2012, what things would you favor cutting?
BURKE: I don’t think they will be necessary. They’ve trimmed about as far as they can trim. I think if the city faces a budget crisis, an alternative would be phase two of Amendment 1, which would be a gradual roll forward of the property tax. If the city would grow, the taxes would not have to go up.
CHRISTY: The operative word is if. Seminole is currently in a better position than any community in Pinellas County. It’s the best-run city out there. But, if necessary, I would look at the top and work down if the alternative is raising taxes. There are positions where shared work could be something to consider. It’s about being leaner and meaner. We should deliver more to the folks for less cost.
COUNTS: The first place most cities want to cut is recreation. I don’t agree. Everyone needs a place to go and entertain themselves. I don’t know where we could cut right now because we’re already delivering a very efficient government based on streamlined staffing. I believe 2012 will be a little stronger (economic) recovery. Things are starting to go.
MATTHEWS: We are bare bones now. If we have to cut any more, we’ll have to cut a service or benefit that is currently in existence. All departments are bare bones. Frank (Edmunds) hasn’t allowed anyone to remain sacred. Our budget is down $3 million from five years ago.
What are the biggest issues facing Seminole?
BURKE: Growth of the city, or the lack thereof. The Chamber (of Commerce) is doing a good job of redevelopment of the city. But you can only get so much blood out of that stone. The size of the city must grow.
CHRISTY: Economic development. The biggest one is the Seminole Mall. There are also about 100 empty storefronts. We need to become more diligent on that matter. Overall, Seminole has done a remarkable job. When you look at the west side of Park Street, with all the development there, it’s incredible.
COUNTS: Traffic and foreclosures. We’re a drive-through community. We get a lot of traffic, red light running and speeding. We’re fortunate to have the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to enforce traffic ordinances and have a lower percentage of accidents than other communities.
MATTHEWS: Commercial real estate, which is struggling due to the economy. We’ve talked about incentives for new business. We also need to come up with a plan to make funds available for businesses to improve the look of their property. I think it affects where people shop. I think we need incentives or discounts to help them because we need business in our city. We need to evaluate how we can be of assistance to businesses without being a burden to our residents.
BURKE: I came in third last year (out of seven candidates) and I haven’t seen anything happen regarding my platform, which was senior volunteerism. Businesses in Seminole could use help from the city. I’d like to see some type of resident ID card, which would be good for discounts at participating Seminole merchants, boosting their sales. Seminole cannot remain business as usual and expect to succeed.
CHRISTY: We need to take the leadership point on the lot in front of the mall and develop it. I plan to lend my skills to that and push for economic development. Also, annexation is a big issue with me. I would like to see more done in that area. We have the potential to be much larger.
COUNTS: My hope is we’ll have a good voter turnout and I look forward to continuing to serve the city of Seminole.
MATTHEWS: My enjoyment on the City Council has been because I’ve been able to be an asset to our citizens. They chose to entrust me with being a city councilor and there’s no way I would have gotten 20 years if they didn’t think so. I enjoy serving my city and making decisions that affect the direction the city goes.