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Local officials discuss what’s on your ballot

Mark Parker



From left: Eric Lavina, economic development analyst for the City of St. Petersburg; Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce; State Rep. Michelle Rayner; Christie Bruner (back), vice president of advocacy for the Chamber; City Council Vice Chair Brandi Gabbard and Dr. Hank Hine, executive director of the Dali Museum. All photos by Mark Parker.

In addition to statewide and local candidate races, St. Petersburg voters will also decide on two city charter amendments and two referendum questions during the upcoming Nov. 8 election.

In preparation for choices that could have an immediate and long-term impact on the city, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a “What’s on my Ballot” event. It was held Tuesday night at St. Petersburg College’s Downtown Campus, in partnership with the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions.

The discussion featured State Rep. Michele Rayner highlighting three state constitutional amendments; City Council Vice Chair Brandi Gabbard; Dr. Hank Hine, executive director of The Dali Museum; and Eric Lavina, economic development analyst for the City of St. Petersburg. While the state amendments could have a significant local impact, the event focused more on initiatives unique to St. Petersburg.

Panelists provided critical information and answered several questions from attendees. They did not state their opinions on how residents should vote. More than anything, organizers and officials stressed that voters should prepare for Nov. 8 and expect a lengthy and important ballot.

“Your task today is to take at least one tidbit you learned and call a friend, text a friend and tell them what you learned that you didn’t know before,” urged Christie Bruner, vice president of advocacy at the Chamber of Commerce.

Municipal Election Changes

Gabbard explained the two city charter amendments on the ballot, beginning with election rescheduling. Currently, St. Petersburg residents cast their votes in odd-numbered years, insulating city elections from state and national races.

Brandi Gabbard discussed two potential city charter amendments.

The schedule provides for shorter ballots, allowing voters to focus on local races and initiatives and decreasing the chance for “ballot fatigue.” Gabbard said the council unanimously approved a potential charter amendment to allow for an early voting mechanism and increase turnout.

It would also save money, as the city must pay for its separate elections. The Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Office would cover associated costs if the process aligns with the larger races.

“However, a yes vote makes the cost of running for office much higher,” said Gabbard. “You’ve got to think – you’re going to have a lot more people on the ballot. You are going to have very big names that are going to be on the ballot.

“With this one, you really have to weigh the pros and cons as it pertains to, do we want to get that better turnout, with the result of that possibly being that it becomes harder and more expensive for local individuals … to run for office.”

Another critical aspect, explained Gabbard, is that the change would give the mayor and all council members an extra year in office. If a majority votes no, election cycles and terms would remain the same.

City Council residency requirements

Gabbard also discussed the charter amendment to change city council residency requirements to accommodate the decennial redistricting process. Council members must immediately leave office if they no longer reside within their district boundaries, a recent hot topic in local government.

She said the unintended consequence of redistricting is that it could draw duly elected officials out of their district “at no fault of their own.” Gabbard relayed that she was unsure why the city did not broach the issue during previous redistricting years, but that the city’s legal team explained the potential ramifications during the current process.

“A yes vote on this one would allow city council members, whose district boundaries have been redrawn, to remain in office for the full term – of which they were elected,” said Gabbard.

Dali Expansion

Hine discussed a ballot referendum regarding an amended 99-year lease agreement between the city and the Dali Museum. It would allow The Dali to build on a 40-foot wide, 170-foot long strip of land known as Lot 6 and zoned as waterfront property, if approved.

It currently serves as one access point for the Mahaffey Theater’s parking garage, and Hine said there are five to seven other ways to enter the area. He would like to utilize it to build more immersive, interactive experiences as part of a proposed 60,000-square-foot expansion.

Those types of exhibits, said Hine, help to understand the artist’s intent and bring people closer to the featured work.

“Dali’s melting of the world and his double images show us that the world is not just one way,” he said. “We have to have tolerance; we have to have empathy, and we have to have flexibility of thought.”

Hank Hine discussed a ballot referendum regarding an amended 99-year lease agreement between the city and the Dali Museum.

Hine and Gabbard stressed that the referendum is not a decision on designs or the St. Petersburg Center for the Arts – previously named when platted by city officials. Instead, it is simply on whether to allow the Dali to build on a previously unapproved site, as the city charter explicitly protects St. Petersburg’s waterfront and greenspaces.

Gabbard explained that after much debate, the council concluded that the museum needed the space. She offered her opinion on the matter, stating that “The Dali has proven itself to be a vital community asset, and it’s time for the voters to decide if they want to see that enterprise expand.”

Hine relayed that he understands concerns about construction potentially interrupting operations at the Mahaffey. However, he said that when the museum built its current building, there were no impediments to the theater or the St. Pete Grand Prix.

“We guarantee we will be as careful in the future with that as we have been,” said Hine.

Ad Valorem tax exemptions

Florida law stipulates that a city can create a ballot referendum allowing voters to grant officials the authority to provide property tax exemptions to businesses over a 10-year term. St. Petersburg residents approved the measure by nearly 67% in 2011.

A subsequent referendum to reinstate the exemptions for new and expanding businesses in specific industries failed by just 87 votes in Nov. 2021. Lavina explained that the initiative allows the city to stay competitive with neighboring counties and municipalities that offer the exemptions, such as Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties and the Cities of Tampa, Clearwater and Largo.

Job creation criteria are strict, and businesses wishing to participate still require the council’s approval. Lavina noted that four projects asked for exemptions since the program’s adoption, and the city granted two requests.

He explained that it is another tool in the city’s toolbox and gets officials to the table for initial discussions.

The city council approved a $100,000 exemption – the individual annual cap – for American Strategic Insurance from 2014 to 2019. Jabil received a $67,334 reduction in August 2020 over a five-year term.

There is an overall program cap of $1.5 million accepted taxes, and Lavina said, “there isn’t going to be any more than that in lost revenue with potential granted authority for these projects.”

Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said that some businesses might not want to participate once they realize the lengthy process required to obtain a potential $100,000 exemption. However, the initiative is also a symbolic gesture to show the city is friendly to businesses and serious about job growth.

“This message will send out to the rest of the Tampa Bay development community and others that St. Pete is in it for jobs, too,” said Steinocher. “And I think that’s as much of this whole thing as anything.”






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1 Comment

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    Ryan Todd

    October 19, 2022at3:25 pm

    Insulating city hall from national-level polarizing politics seems wise to me despite the additional cost to process multiple elections. I think it’s money well-spent considering off-cycle elections make it more affordable for candidates to run.

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