Holmes Beach commission candidates differ, agree
Two divided by four always equals one-half. That means half of the four candidates for the two Holmes Beach commission seats up for election in November will be left out, while two will gain a two-year term on the commission.
The four candidates in the Nov. 2 election - current City Commissioners Roger Lutz and Sandy Haas-Martens along with Pat Geyer and David Zaccagnino - met with members of the public and Islander staff Wednesday, Oct. 13, for a candidate forum. Judging by the responses to questions posed by Islander publisher Bonner Joy and the public, all candidates have areas of agreement and disagreement.
Pat Geyer bought property in Holmes Beach in 1955 and has resided here permanently since 1961. She is a former commissioner and mayor of Holmes Beach. While realizing that Holmes Beach is changing, she wants to be part of the decision-making process that will regulate that change in the best manner for the city.
Roger Lutz is an attorney who has lived in Holmes Beach since 1974. He is seeking his fourth term as a commissioner, and originally sought office because the city was rundown then, drainage was a serious problem, and the city was involved in a number of useless lawsuits. Six years later, the city is in a much better position, he said. As a civil litigation lawyer with 30 years experience, he said he provides experience, legal advice and guidance to the commission for its complex proceedings and to avoid lawsuits. Since he's been a commissioner, the commission has not lost a single lawsuit, nor become involved in any frivolous legal actions. "I know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em," he said.
Sandy Haas-Martens has been in Holmes Beach since 1969 and is a retired bank executive. She's been a community activist since retiring from the banking industry, and has served on the fire district board and as a volunteer in other civic projects. She first ran for office in 1998 to "mend fences" with other city and county governments. "Now, we work well and I would like to continue with that leadership."
David Zaccagnino is a Tampa native who moved to Holmes Beach four years ago because he thought it was the ideal place to raise his family. He works for a major Wall Street investment firm and he's running for office because he believes the commission needs a "fresh face, a fresh voice." He's concerned that the growth in east Manatee County will seriously affect Holmes Beach and he's worried that rising taxes are forcing small businesses to sell to developers. While this is his first election for public office, he said he couldn't just "sit by and watch" without making an effort to effect change.
With an $8.4 million budget for 2004-05 compared to just $2.1 million 10 years ago, the candidates were asked if the city should hire a city manager, and whether or not the voters should be allowed to decide if they want a city manager form of government to handle such a large amount of money.
"Great idea," said Zaccagnino. Of course a city manager costs money, but in the end, a city manager would save the city money through grants and efficient operation of the city. "It's a huge budget now and we need someone to manage it," he said. He's in favor of citizens deciding the issue. On the south end of Holmes Beach where he lives, people have said they want to decide the issue.
Lutz, however, said the commission has discussed a city manager at length after a charter review committee made such a recommendation in 2002.
"I'm opposed to it because everyone compares the city to a business, but it isn't." Businesses make money, the city spends money, he noted.
He also said current Mayor Carol Whitmore does as good a job as any mayor at running the city. If she were to leave office, there's no shortage of current commissioners, excluding himself as he said he was not interested in seeking the position of mayor, who could do a great job running the city and do it for a lot less than what a city manager would cost.
Lutz doesn't agree with sending the issue to the voters. "We're paid to make those decisions, but I don't have a lot of people coming up to me in favor. If I see a lot of grass roots support, I would say yes, send it to the voters."
Likewise, Haas-Martens said the vast majority of people she's talked with are against a city manager. While she originally favored the idea, she said she's "here for the citizens. If they say vote against it, that's why I'm here."
On the contrary, said Geyer. "I've had citizens ask me 'why not let us vote.' I say let people vote on it."
With an $8.4 million budget, candidates were asked where they could save money in the 2004-05 budget.
Geyer said public works department staff should be cleaning and maintaining the city hall grounds, not a private company as is the current practice.
Haas-Martens, however, begged to differ. PWD staff are now available for much needed maintenance of city property and right of way, making street repairs and other needed maintenance. The outside contract is minimal compared to what it would cost the city to have PWD do the work at the expense of other areas.
"I think we're doing good" with this budget. She reminded the audience that of the $8.4 million, $3 million is in reserves and will not be spent except in an emergency.
"We're saving money in the longterm by doing the Key Royale Bridge" now and getting paid back later by the Florida Department of Transportation, she said.
"And I've saved us money by not hiring a city manager," quipped Lutz.
He said taxes have been lowered since he's been in office, but the city has the luxury of more money coming in because of rising property values. Now may not be the time to try and reduce the budget because the city is going to have to spend at least $100,000 to rewrite the city codes and comprehensive plan. "Right now, we have money to work with."
Zaccagnino countered that a city manager would write enough grants to save the city considerable money and generate more income. He also thought it was time to look at getting some of the tourism tax revenue paid back directly to the city.
All the candidates agreed that the city's current building height restrictions should remain in place.
Zaccagnino, however, was worried that some people just go ahead and build a higher structure, then apologize later.
The four candidates all agreed the city should continue the legal challenge it has with the other Island cities and Manatee County against Bradenton and the Arvida-Perico Island project, but disagreed on how long that objection should last.
Geyer noted that there's "really little we can do," but suggested that Manatee Avenue be for the Island during evacuation times and the developer provide its own evacuation route elsewhere.
Haas-Martens agreed, but said she'd like Arvida to reduce the building height and put in another access road from the mainland to reduce the stress on Manatee Avenue/Palma Sola Causeway that the project would cause.
"Bradenton did a dirty deal," lamented Lutz. He'd like to see Perico stay the way it is. "Everything reasonable is being done. Maybe we can exert more pressure on the county commissioners." However, he added, if the lawsuit eventually looks "hopeless," at that time he'd tell the city to "bail" rather than be subject to court costs and high legal fees. "But as long as we have a chance, let's fight."
Waste Management Inc.
Waste Management Inc., the city's contracted waste hauling service, has proposed automated pickup for Holmes Beach with residents using either a 30-gallon or 64-gallon container provided by WMI. The issue is currently tabled by the commission, but the WMI contract expires in 2005 and the candidates were asked their opinion of the WMI proposal.
Geyer said that after looking at the 30-gallon containers, she would go forward with automated service.
Haas-Martens said the proposal still does not consider those residents who only have one bag of garbage a week, in addition to those who have no place to store a container. While she's still against the proposal, she noted that WMI can impose the service in a new contract. "Down the road, we are going to need it," she said.
"I've been shocked at the number of people who have called me" on this issue, said Lutz. Apparently, many people are concerned they won't be able to move the containers as WMI would require.
"I originally thought it was a good idea, but let's have some more feedback before we make a decision," he suggested, noting the proposal has been tabled until 2005 by the commission.
Zaccagnino said he would favor the small containers and the automated service.
Police pension request
The Holmes Beach Police Pension Retirement Board has proposed the city increase its annual contribution for an officer's retirement from 33 percent to 36 percent. Candidates were asked if they favored or opposed such a measure.
Zaccagnino noted that there's a "big discrepancy" between what the city staff get as a contribution (currently 9 percent annually) and what the police get. At the same time, police carry a weapon and put their "life on the line" to take care of everyone, including the staff.
Lutz favored putting all city employees, including police, under one umbrella. He's not opposed to allowing police officers to retire at 50, but he needs more data before he can make an informed vote (see separate story on pension request).
Haas-Martens also needs more data, as does Geyer, but Geyer added that the city needs to look at its contribution to regular staff members if it increases its contribution toward police retirement.
Many members of the public were concerned that rising Island taxes are forcing small businesses to sell out to developers (The Islander, Sept. 15, 29 and Oct. 13). Candidates were asked if they had any solution to the problem.
Geyer said she had no immediate solution, but as the owner of Duffy's Tavern, would attend meetings currently being held by business owners to discuss possible solutions.
Haas-Martens noted that it's not just in Holmes Beach, it's everywhere. Unfortunately, there's little the commission can do. She did suggest business owners contact the property appraiser's office and the tax collector's office to voice concerns.
Lutz empathized with the business owners. "Small business owners are getting killed."
The state legislature created the problem a few years ago when it placed the taxation burden on out-of-state property owners, business owners and new home buyers, he observed. The current situation is "great for homesteaders like us," but eventually the legislature will have to "be equitable" in how it allows counties to assess and collect taxes. Changes can only come from the legislature, Lutz noted.
Zaccagnino suggested the city become more "pro-active" in the fight.
Candidates were asked if they wanted to change, limit or restrict current zoning codes to reduce the number of allowable units on a property.
While Zaccagnino was in favor of stricter codes, Lutz said the city has to remember that the city can't interfere "more than necessary" with a property owner's right to build what is lawfully allowed. "If someone owned a trailer park and wanted to sell it, who are we to tell them 'no, you can't sell,'" he said.
Haas-Martens was worried that more and more Island families and small businesses are selling out and moving out, while Geyer suggested a fulltime city planner might help "lead us in the right direction."
Why be a commissioner?
Each candidate was asked why he or she wanted to be a commissioner.
Geyer said it was her love for the Island and desire to "keep the city as nice and as great for as long as we can," that makes her seek office.
Haas-Martens said it's her way of giving something back to the city.
Lutz agreed that he, too, wanted to give something to the city. "Everyone should do something," he said. For him, it's not picking up empty beer bottles on cleanup day, but the legal advice and direction he can offer the commission. He said he thought about not seeking re-election, but the litigation area has become so critical to the city that "it's one area I can do the city some good."
Zaccagnino said he wanted to be a commissioner because of his love for the city and his desire to "help with change. I'm losing neighbors left and right who are moving off the Island."
He also said it's time for a change and he has a lot of energy to give.