CLEARWATER — There were quite a few empty seats at the Pinellas County Commissioners candidate forum Sunday afternoon, but those who accepted the invitation from the Libertarian Party of Pinellas used the time to connect directly with voters.
No candidates from District 6, which covers the middle part of the county from Seminole to Pinellas Park, attended the forum at Clearwater’s Countryside Public Library, and the only candidate from the District 2 race that showed was incumbent Norm Roche. In District 4, however, four of the seven Republicans vying for retiring Republican Susan Latvala’s seat took advantage of the opportunity to get more face time with voters. Mark Weinkrantz, the sole Democrat running in District 4, and independents Carl Folkman and Marcus Harrison also attended.
In District 4, audience questions centered on what role the federal government should play in funding county-level projects. Dave Eggers, Jim Ronecker, Tim Keffalas and Macho Liberti, all Republicans, advocated for competing for those federal funds, while their independent counterparts remained more cautious.
Ronecker argued that Florida is a “donor state,” with more tax dollars leaving the state than coming back into it. His role as a county commissioner would be to work with those legislators to bring funding back to Pinellas, he said. Keffalas agreed, and cited his friendship with four-term congressman Gus Bilirakis, who is running for re-election, as a “tremendous asset.”
“The legislators want to bring money back to their counties so they can continue being legislators,” Keffalas said. “It’s not going to change, there are going to be pet projects, but I think we can use it in better ways so it’s not wasted or abused.”
Harrison said tax money should come back to the county, but county officials should decide how to spend it, not legislators who divert funds for “pet projects.” Any time a county can get federal money it’s a “wonderful thing,” Folkman said, but he, too, is “cautious” about projects that emerge solely with federal funding.
“You read about the GreenLight Pinellas transportation tax and people say there’s going to be federal money coming down for that too, but then you talk to some of the people in the federal government and they warn that it hasn’t been guaranteed yet,” Folkman said.
But that uncertainty shouldn’t overshadow the needs of the county, especially when it comes to maintaining the infrastructure of the tourism industry, Weinkrantz argued. Beaches need to be renoursihed every six years, the new taxiway at the under-used Clearwater-St. Petersburg airport cost $10 million, he said.
“Nothing comes cheap, nothing is free, and we need to use whatever we can to attract people to this area for work and play,” Weinkrantz said. “We need to make Pinellas a sticky location, not just because of the humidity, but because people want to come down here and open businesses and things and we need to exploit all the money we can get.”
Roche, who is running against Largo Mayor Pat Gerard and state Rep. Ed Hooper in District 2, spoke against selling Pinellas County’s watershed lands, which he deemed the “single most important, yet under-discussed, issue in this race.” The area in question, Cross Bar and Al Bar ranches in Pasco County, make up a combined area greater than the City of Largo and are the main sources of drinking water for Pinellas. Selling the land back to Pasco County, as some commissioners have suggested, could bring in roughly $57 million for Pinellas.
“It would be the single greatest mistake the county has made,” Roche said. “From its beginning, Pinellas County has been independent, self-reliant, and if we sell this land, Pinellas County becomes a dependent county. … It’s about our very future, if you have no water you have no community.”
The candidates will answer five questions taken from Sunday’s audience and post their answers on the Libertarian Party’s website, www.lppinellas.wordpress.com. Video of the forum will also be posted on the site within the next few days, said Karena Morrison, Chair of the Libertarian Party of Pinellas.