Editor's note: this is the first segment of a two-part series that will continue next week.
BELLEAIR BEACH – Four of council’s seven seats are up for election this year, and the city’s political landscape has become highly competitive for the first time in years.
Two incumbents are not running for re-election. One of the candidates is former Mayor Rob Baldwin, who won his current seat in a coin toss Nov. 30, after the council deadlocked in choosing between him and Jody Shirley to replace Jeril Cohen, who died last fall.
Both Baldwin and Shirley are running, along with council member Jewels Chandler and challengers Marvin Behm, a former council member; Glen Gunn, whose wife Pamela Gunn decided not to seek re-election; and Dr. Nicolas Pavouris.
The candidates participated in a forum held Jan. 29, where they gave their views and answered questions submitted in writing by audience members. The League of Women Voters sponsored and ran the event.
Council members in Belleair Beach serve three-year terms and do not run in districts, so residents will vote for four out of the six candidates, and the four highest vote getters will win.
Council candidates were asked a series of questions relating to increasing property values, the city’s priority issues, fixing street flooding, keeping pace with neighboring communities, and reactions to a controversial proposed redo of West Bay Drive.
Their answers revealed a number of common concerns, like the need for better code enforcement and increased public safety. The candidates also differed on issues, especially on whether the city should continue along the preset course or whether fresh faces, a new vision and direction are needed.
Candidates’ major issues
The new council candidates were asked to name the major issues they would champion if elected while the council members seeking re-election were asked to give their top accomplishment or contribution while in office.
Pavouris said his big issue would be public safety, which he said has been declining in recent years. Also, financial responsibility. Pavouris said the present City Hall was not needed and building it “was irresponsible.” Better code enforcement was also cited as a major issue by Pavouris.
Chandler also named public safety, and cited the recent establishment of a Neighborhood Watch group. She also said flooding in the city is a major issue and that council is having work sessions to deal with it.
Gunn said his top issues were crime and safety, code enforcement to enhance property values, traffic congestion, the need for strategic planning and the importance of getting input from residents on their priority issues.
Baldwin, who has been on council off and on for a number of years, discussed his contributions to the construction of the new City Hall, the repair of the Harrison Street Bridge, the resolution of the parking issues to gain beach renourishment and positioning the city financially to fund needed improvements.
Behm said public safety was his number one issue.
“We need more coordination between the city and the police,” he said.
Behm said he would favor hiring a community police officer, as some other communities have done. Code enforcement is another issue Behm said the city needs to address.
“Our codes are out of date and our code enforcement officer only works four hours a day,” Behm said.
Jody Shirley would ask the residents what issues are most important to them. She also said stormwater issues need to be addressed, along with code enforcement, which she said has been lacking.
How to increase property values
The candidates were asked “what one thing would you do to raise property values in the city?”
Shirley, a real estate developer, said Belleair Beach has “probably the lowest property values in the area.”
The reasons, she said, are the lack of code enforcement and the city’s failing infrastructure.
Baldwin questioned Shirley’s comments, saying an analysis he did of seven beach communities showed Belleair Beach to have the second highest home values. He said the city is doing a good job and “should keep doing what we’re doing.”
Completing the long-sought utility undergrounding of the Bellevue Estates neighborhood would do much to improve property values in that area, said Behm. That project could be completed in another year and a half, he said.
Pavouris said he would tighten up code enforcement to help beautify the city, and increase public safety.
Chandler also said lowering crime and strengthening code enforcement would improve property values.
“All of these things cost money, but we should be strategic in where we spend money, and do it without raising taxes,” she stressed.
A 2016 survey showed Belleair Beach rated ninth out of 11 beach communities in property value increases, Gunn said.
Beautification is the key to raising property values, he said, and the undergrounding of utilities, as is being done in the Bellevue Estates neighborhood, goes right to the heart of safety, reliability and beautification, he said.
“If we can focus on these things, we will increase our property values in Belleair Beach,” Gunn said.
Belleair Beach vs. neighboring communities
The candidates were asked how does Belleair Beach, as a strictly residential community, keep pace with neighboring communities that have commercial interests to bring in revenue?
Baldwin said “we don’t want to be like the other communities. Belleair Beach is unique and we should keep it that way.”
Code enforcement is the key, said Behm. Enforce the code and give the code enforcement officer the tools to do the job, and the city will be more attractive, he said.
Behm said “the city needs to declare, that from this day forward we will enforce all codes. Everyone has to comply.”
Belleair Beach is unique, Pavouris agreed, but because the city has no commercial businesses he said there needs to be more fiscal responsibility. The city should be more aggressive in going after grants.
“Grants are out there,” he said.
Pavouris again criticized the building of City Hall, saying it cost $5 million and brings in no revenue.
Chandler agreed with the idea that Belleair Beach should keep its residential character.
“We should not try to be like Indian Rocks Beach with hotels and businesses. That’s not what the residents want for our city,” she said.
Code enforcement should be stepped up, Chandler said, and the city should be “kept clean.” Taxes should not be raised, she said.
Lacking revenue from commercial businesses, Gunn said Belleair Beach should go for grants. “The money is there for the taking,” he said. Also, the city should be innovative and do more strategic planning, improve safety and take care of infrastructure needs. He said he would “tap into our citizens” for their input.
Shirley said the city has several private beach accesses that are in Belleair Shore, but are used by Belleair Beach residents and maintained by Belleair Beach.
Referring to recent issues regarding the beach accesses, Shirley said, “we really need to protect that relationship with Belleair Shore and be good neighbors.”
Also, she said the city has 13 neighborhood parks, and “that is something you don’t see in other beach communities.”