David McKalip and Darden Rice come from different ideological places, and they certainly present voters a clear choice. But it's not just those two on the ballot. Former Crescent Lake Neighborhood Association President Carolyn Fries joined the contest a short while ago, and they've been recently joined by taxi cab driver Richard Eldridge.
The four candidates participated in a relatively fast-paced hour-long debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Northeast Park Neighborhood Association Monday night.
"We’re going to cut property taxes $10 million and water bills $10 million," said McKalip, whose ideology is a libertarian/Tea Party blend. "We're going to cut garbage bills down $19 million over five years. We're going to cut our water bill, we're going to cut the tax on what the city imposes on utility bills. We're going to cut the tax the city imposes on phone bills. In other words, we’re going to cut our government down to size. We're going to make them [politicians] live off the same budget that we’ve been living under in the past decade," he boldly declared.
Rice said she opposed hidden fees passed on to electricity customers and Citizens Property Insurance holders. "I oppose these monopolistic corporations and companies that are sneaking in these fees on backs of working families, the middle class and the poor, " adding that McKalip will allow corporations to do "whatever they want."
McKalip responded that Rice would have no power to cut the programs she mentioned because they're not part of city government. But he did say that a councilmember could control the city's tax on electric bills. "But I don't hear her proposing that."
Throughout the debate, McKalip painted himself as a man who would cut your taxes if you live in the 'Burg, referring to the $80 million in excess reserves that would allow him to do that, while saying that Rice endorsed the People's Budget Review that advocates spending the reserves on more government services.
Rice denied that, and said that too often Mayor Bill Foster has presented a budget that allows only a "Sophie's Choice" between cutting libraries and other services vs. raising taxes.
One issue where the candidates all seemed to differ to some degree is on the issue of recycling. As CL recently reported, only 10 percent of city residents currently utilize the city's program (and only 35 percent are even aware of it).
Well-known for her environmental work over the years, Rice says she is a strong supporter of a universal curbside recycling program, mentioning that St. Pete is the biggest city in Florida that does not have such a program in place. Eldridge agreed with her.
But McKalip denounced the idea of what he called a "government recycling program," adding that he personally does recycle by paying a private company to do it.
Carolyn Fries also said she supports the status quo and doesn't favor forcing people to pay for a program. "I think what we need to do is to get more people to participate in the program that we have existing today."
If you're a St. Pete resident who actually favors red-light cameras, none of the candidates' positions will appease you. All four came out strongly against the cameras, which are controversial throughout the state but seem to have come into strong disfavor in St. Petersburg.
On the issue of non-violent drug arrests in minority communities, Fries said it wasn't just minorities affected by drugs. She says she has a "nose for pot" and can frequently smell it through the Northeast part of town.
Richard Eldridge spoke most enthusiastically about the medicinal benefits of cannabis, urging voters to Google that if they didn't believe him.
McKalip said the "tragedy of continued drug abuse and unequal sentencing" needed to end, but it wouldn't happen because of any government programs, while Rice argued for decriminalizing minor offenses, saying it was "deplorable we’re giving young men records for misdemeanors that could affect the trajectory of the rest of their lives."
Although careful not to ruffle too many feathers, Carolyn Fries did seem to take an implicit shot at Mayor Bill Foster in her closing remarks, calling former Mayor Rick Baker's optimism "infectious," saying somewhere along the way the city has lost that sense of optimism. She also bemoaned the lack of communication by city officials in selling the Lens, but ended up saying that she remains confident that St. Pete can continue to thrive in the future.
Meanwhile McKalip is going to continue to emphasize his tax-cutting platform, announcing Tuesday that he'll hold an early-morning news conference on Thursday in front of City Hall where he will discuss tax cuts, employee raises and dealing with the city's pension funds issue.