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Safety Harbor Candidates’ Q&A

in city hall/news

Election Day is next Tuesday, March 17. The last day for posting of mail-in ballots was Tuesday, March 10th. Early voting started March 7 and goes through March 15. There are five precincts in Safety Harbor. In addition to the national primaries, several Pinellas county municipal elections are also on the ballot. Safety Harbor has two open seats; mayor and commission seat four. Two candidates are running for mayor: incumbent Joe Ayoub and Tanja Vidovic. Three are vying for the Commission seat: incumbent Carlos Diaz, John Estok, and David Roth.

All are three-year terms with no term limits. The new officials will be involved in directing a few critical issues, primarily growth management and the Ready for 100 initiative.

League of Women Voters Candidates Forum

On January 30, the League of Women Voters hosted a Candidates Forum at the Safety Harbor Spa. The League followed up with publication of Election Guides for both the Mayoral and Commission Seat #4 contests.

Ten (more) questions from the Safety Harbor Sun

In an effort to gain a deeper understanding of candidates’ unique or specific ideas for addressing residents’ concerns, the Safety Harbor Sun met with each candidate and asked a series of ten questions. Although the mayoral race has received some additional press coverage since the Forum, the Safety Harbor Sun‘s focus is on the issues of concern to residents and both of the contests. Responses are lightly edited or condensed for brevity.

The Master Plan has a statement to encourage expansion of public transit linkages. Do you believe that car-free transit options should be a component of future downtown planning and do you have any thoughts on bus service expansion or other alternatives?

Estok: I don’t believe there will be justification for additional routes within Safety Harbor unless density increases. Regional bus routes for Northern Pinellas County would be more effective … Property owners in Safety Harbor contribute almost one million dollars annually to PSTA [Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority] (via a 0.75 property tax) but we don’t reap anywhere near that in service … Regarding trains, I’m skeptical of CSX connections; Sun Rail in Orlando has been a flop. For car-free options, we can add bike lanes; the city could take over Philippe Parkway, Enterprise Road, and the west end of Main Street.

Diaz: Car-free options should definitely be a component of future development. I believe we’re in the middle of this issue of congestion. Cars have been an incredible invention and have pushed society forward, but that’s been at a cost; they’re invasive and take up valuable resources. Price, insurance, road maintenance, and liabilities are concerns for many communities. Where will technology take us next?

Bus expansion or other options; I’d be for it, but that’s up to the county. I would advocate for Safety Harbor residents if they want it. The [Jolley] Trolley that was here didn’t have enough use. The mass transit challenge is the last mile; that’s where technology would come in.

Roth: Yes, absolutely we should coordinate with the county. We say we want a walkable downtown but how do people get there? I have no ideas on bus service, because I don’t know much about it, but I think working on the issue county-wide is important.

Vidovic: Absolutely, the city should advocate for this. There are members of the community who don’t use cars for various reasons and we should try to connect them to existing routes. PSTA advocacy to get people to Tampa, Clearwater, etc. Let residents know what is currently available to increase ridership. Other options are limited due to infrastructure, so helping with walkability and bike routes would help.

Ayoub: Yes, alternative options are good; bus options are up to county. PSTA has cut back on busing due to budget constraints. Advocating is important and  having relationships is good. I have served on that board in the past. On the possibility of additional routes-yes, I’d be for that.

Parking downtown has been raised as a concern for some residents, particularly during events & festivals, but increasingly on non-event days. Do you have any specific ideas to address this concern regarding improving parking spaces on a daily basis and during events?

Estok: Follow the code; don’t waive the code where parking is required.  When exceptions are given, it creates problems. I will not vote for code waivers … A parking garage could be built on city lots on Eighth Avenue, but I don’t want to do that.

For event parking; buses should be used to shuttle people from subdivision — like a Park-and-Ride. 

From here on, limit development density and adhere to parking requirements for new buildings.

Library second story: This is really for meeting rooms. Is this necessary?  The City Commission chambers frequently sit empty. Using this is cheaper than a $2.5 million addition. Part of the cost will have to include parking.  No other specific ideas on parking spaces. I won’t support meters. It’s not a priority with the current commission. The city hasn’t commissioned a parking study, but had discussed parklets which would take up parking spots and be (used) for leisure use.

Diaz: Yes, it’s becoming a problem. The city needs better messaging about where parking is available, including in surrounding neighborhoods. Better organization; on Thursday through Saturday nights the city could offer valet parking  in coordination with community churches or other businesses. If we get the local businesses involved to help pay for this it would benefit all businesses. Re[garding] increasing spaces; I don’t want to sacrifice our ambience for extra parking. I’m skeptical about whether we can find space on the streets. There’s been no discussion about a parking garage.

For events; we could use shuttle services for remote parking. For private events, the vendors must submit a parking plan.

Roth: I don’t have any specific solutions, but I have an issues survey on my website and parking is the number one issue that comes up. But when you suggest parking options, no one wants it “there.” There’s a strong NIMBY factor in Safety Harbor on this and other concerns that come up. It’s something that needs to be discussed and options floated. Some local churches have started to offer park and ride options. At some point the city has to come up with solutions. A democracy doesn’t always appease everyone but hopefully will be in the best long-term interest of the city. For events; partner with churches to provide shuttles.

Vidovic: Yes, that is a big concern. The new building was supposed to include 87 parking spots and they only added 31. On a daily basis, increased density created this problem downtown. It’s hard to fix. We should ask employees to park further away. It will get worse if we don’t address density. Potentially more bus pickup; encourage biking and walking more.  Safety Harbor is 95% developed; no one wants a five-story parking garage.

For events, vendors and their trucks should park remotely at Folly Farms or one of the schools — and Leisure Services should be shuttling them downtown. The city already has busses and staff are often working at events.

Ayoub: I’m always looking to acquire property for parking; we’re mostly built out, but I keep in touch with property owners. Events are the biggest problem, last year the city started requiring organizers to provide parking options for their events. They must have a plan to handle parking, such as using shuttle buses and they’re required to find locations for parking. 

Would you advocate for drawing a grocery store to downtown Safety Harbor? If yes, how should the city proceed?

Estok: Probably not feasible since there’s not enough people downtown to support this.

Diaz: Yes, that would be awesome; something small like a Sprouts. That type of sophisticated business is not going to come without a proper infrastructure in place; that is, a building that meets their requirements.  The city could talk to property owners on Main Street about developing their property for that outcome.

Roth: I haven’t heard this from anyone. No big chain, but a small organic grocer would be nice. I have no preconceived notions on it. That is rolled into the parking issue. I’m not afraid to discuss it.

Vidovic: It would have to be the right store; a small local store would be great. Off of Ninth Street could accommodate a larger store with parking. A small store would be well-supported. It’s one of the things downtown is missing.

City role: [The] business development liaison could reach out and put the word out that the city is interested.

Ayoub: Yes, I have been advocating for this. I asked the the economic development liaison to look for a green grocer to locate to Main Street. The ideal location would be the old post office; we had several people look at it, but no deal has been made. That contributes to a more walkable downtown. One of goals of the Master Plan was to do this, so I’m trying to keep it on commissioners’ minds.

Firefighter staffing was discussed at the Candidate Forum. What is the issue here and do you think it’s a problem?

Estok: It’s not discussed at the meetings hardly. What I hear and feel is that the rank-and-file firefighters think that the chief is just doing what the city manager wants and that their needs are irrelevant. There’s also the feeling that city positions are being filled by Largo associates who will do what the city manager wants.

Diaz: It’s being overplayed a bit. The Fire Chief works with the police, other fire departments, ambulances and 911. The Largo Central Command has a sophisticated system to route 911 calls. There are a lot of analytics involved; resources have to be deployed carefully. The county coordinates all of the different pieces. It’s better to be part of the larger county system with more resources than being a stand-alone system.

Roth: I’ve looked at the plan with the county and I don’t have a problem with it. The concerns are based on a misunderstanding of how things are done here versus other areas of Tampa Bay. I don’t have a problem with the staffing; I’ve done a lot of research on this, but not every issue has a definitive answer.

Vidovic: The issue is NFPA [National Fire Protection Association] & AHA [American Heart Association] make the recommendation for a minimum staffing of four, preferably five, based on how many people it takes to effectively put out fires. Our staffing is three; twice last month the staffing was two and one truck was out of service for a shift due to lack of staff.  There are ways to cut funding; public safety shouldn’t be one of them. A recently-retired fire fighter brought up safety concerns to the commission and the city manager and he was written up for it and given a suspension. Our staff should be listened to, not reprimanded for speaking out.

NFPA makes recommendations based on studies and fires. Often calls are downgraded and the BLS [Basic Life Support] calls can’t get there in time if the situation turns into a heart problem.

Ayoub: It’s not an issue or a problem. Response time, efficiency, and level of service are getting better. We have saved money, but the level of service has improved. We’re staffed appropriately. Eighty to ninety percent of the time we’re above the county minimum. One hundred percent of the time we meet the minimum. Changes were made to priority dispatch. We’re keeping our resources available for life-threatening issues.

Ready for 100: Are you familiar with it? Do you think it’s feasible to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050? Will you establish a committee that includes residents to formulate a plan to implement changes?

Estok: Now comes the hard part: Who will bear the cost of implementation? We don’t need a Sustainability Coordinator now because there’s no plan to coordinate. Policy should come from citizens and the commission and then decide if we need a coordinator. We shouldn’t be dictated to. This is a budgeting issue. Where is pollution coming from? Where are we now and where are we going? We’re going to have to rely on consultants to give us advice on this.

Grants are a better incentive than tax cuts for this. I’m not in favor of cluttering up the tax code with preferences for specific uses. It is feasible for the city to pursue going solar. The city wants to build a new city hall; I’m in favor of charter amendments for this type of enormous expense. The community should be involved.

Diaz: 100% yes. A lot of it is technology-based. The community should be involved. It’s a pretty big plan. Once we see what the city manager comes up with regarding objectives over the next three years and how to implement it, it’s a big plan and the city may need some help.   

Where we can go solar in the city, we should. Right now, the current City Hall can’t go solar because we’d have to cut down trees, but in some locations we should.

Roth: Yes. Cities have already done it. Pick small things and do them; then the process accelerates. Yes, include residents. First, get a Sustainability Coordinator who will act as liaison to the community. Multiple municipalities are doing this, so we leverage that and pool resources and information, including the free information available. Sierra Club is targeting Pinellas County, so possibly eighty percent of the county will be involved. They’re interested in economic justice. Anything that reduces costs should benefit residents due to lower costs. Use the offset money to spend on other projects. We’ll educate citizens about installing solar, as Dunedin is doing, as well as offer grants. That includes pushing back against the energy companies who have convinced the state to stop offering subsidies.

Vidovic: Yes, I stand with the Sierra Club and it’s possible to do this way before 2050. First steps now should be simple things to reduce consumption, like switching to LED bulbs and installing solar wherever we can. What we can’t make on our own, we can buy blocks from Duke. 

Provide grants for homeowners to install solar. Mayor stated that he wouldn’t sign the initiative unless the city took out environmental justice language to include all members of the community. We need a Sustainability Board and administrator. Reach out to all neighborhoods quarterly to let them know what’s available and hear what they need. Form alliances to buy solar in bulk.

Ayoub: Absolutely. The goal is 2035 for city operations and city-wide by 2050. We’re looking at hiring a Sustainability Coordinator and we need to work with other local governments on knowledge and resource sharing.  Working on a plan to move forward; that may or may not include a committee. We’re not at the stage yet to involve residents, but people are very engaged in this issue. The meetings on Ready for 100 were packed; everyone was engaged and emotional; there is already a high level of interest. Tampa Bay magazine did a profile on community leaders in the area … and I would guess 70% of the leaders were talking about sustainability and climate change. There’s a lot of awareness.

Development variances are a hot button issue for some Safety Harbor residents, particularly regarding home height & setbacks. Is this actually a problem — or an issue of perception? What about with commercial housing or business development variances or waivers?

Diaz: Home variances — very few variances are given. Most things are done according to code. If we do give a variance, there’s usually a give-and-take. It’s hard to have a code that addresses all types of variables.

Commercial housing and business development: Second and Main is the first building in years; concessions were made on each side. [The} developer installed tree culverts and they built a 42-foot building when 45-foot was allowed at the time. He was willing to forgo funds and save money in the long run. The city worked with him.

Roth: Over the last few years I’ve seen too many votes that favor exceptions and not enough push back. However, some people have totally the wrong perception of what’s going on. When I show people the downtown development map, people are appalled to see eight blocks of Main Street and two blocks on either side are zoned to have 35-foot high buildings on both sides. The zoning is in place and we need to review it. I would like to see that changed to read two-story buildings.

Commercial variances should not be any different than residential; it should all be two-story zoning. We need to poll residents on various issues.

Vidovic: It is a huge issue; our infrastructure cannot support more density.  Pinellas County is 95% built out. Building up increases traffic, flooding; there’s less parking, the storm system can’t handle more water. The fact that we are still building in flood zones is crazy. Tree canopy reduction increases heat index. When we reduce setbacks and cut down trees there’s less permeable land. A twenty-five percent tree canopy lowers temperatures ten degrees in cities. Infrastructure can’t be replaced without raising taxes. I don’t think the community wants more density.

Commercial: A variance should be a rare thing. Everyone should follow existing codes; if rules need changing, let’s change it. 

Ayoub: I think it’s both; [a] perception and a real issue. We’ve made dozens of changes to the code over the last few years. One issue is that we need homes that are compatible with existing homes; smaller footprints. We may give a residential height variance in exchange for a smaller footprint. It’s a give and take. Iron Age Street did not get a variance.

Commercial: I don’t recall issuing variances for a bigger footprint. You’ve got to look at the full picture from the first proposal to the second proposal.  There’s only been one building in the last fifteen years and this one was built so it’s smaller, less tall and more compatible with the existing neighborhoods.

Do you think the city’s communication methods regarding events and around future planning need improving? If yes, how can this be done with current staffing models?

Diaz: Lack of transparency was brought up in the Forum. Everything is public record and there are at least two meetings for every project. I don’t know how we can get more information out there. Perhaps we should use social media more and perhaps we should reorganize the website.

We could do a citizen poll or work with committees about how to get their message out.

Roth: Yes, there should be more cohesion and communication is too fragmented. The website and social media communication needs changing. For staffing, I don’t know how the staffing works. The website is outsourced.

It’s not acceptable to have to go to multiple places for information. Interesting that meetings are cancelled but the website is not updated, or it’s at the bottom of the page. You shouldn’t have to hunt for updates.

Vidovic: Absolutely we need to have a better transparent government … we need to do a better job letting people know about planning … People often don’t know about buildings until they’re underway. There are forgotten neighborhoods that don’t know what grants are available to them.

Ayoub: There’s room for improvement, but in general I think we do a good job with communication. I was out knocking on doors during The Best Damn Race and people were appreciative of the notifications. We don’t need additional staffing; it’s just looking for better ways to communicate.

Our walkable downtown is a desirable bonus, but affordable housing is limited in Safety Harbor. How can the city government ensure that affordability is preserved and encouraged?

Diaz: We are limited in what the municipality can do. A few years ago we were going to donate some land to a developer for affordable housing. The cost they came back with was about $230,000, which is too high. I was expecting it to be about $150,000. Additionally the residents were not happy about it. There may be a perception problem with the term affordable housing. Also, where would we put it? On Cedar Street I want to remind people that apartments were prop0sed and everyone was against it.

Roth: It’s sad when employees can’t afford to live in the city where they work.

People agree it’s a problem but no real steps have been made to make that happen.

Vidovic: That is hard to do. The original agreement for the apartments (on Second Avenue) were supposed to be affordable but are $2300-a-month for a small two-bedroom. Everyone wants their house value to be high, but that increases the taxes.

The city needs to look at other small towns to see who is doing it right and follow their model. Do some research and see what works.

Ayoub: It’s tough; we’ve looked at a lot the city owns on Elm Street. The city can offer incentives … for very nice housing, but the perception of the neighbors was that they hated the idea. At the meetings with the surrounding neighborhoods, we gave a really good presentation, but they weren’t really listening .… everyone just kept talking about Section Eight housing. Everyone’s high-level in-theory in favor of it, but if it’s going to be near them, they don’t want it.

The city dropped the idea of that location, but it’s still in our vision to pursue affordable housing.

Regarding general budget allocations, do you have any final thoughts on how the city budget is currently managed and how decisions are made that impact city residents? 

Diaz: The city is being run very efficiently and we’ve been responsible with the budget.  It’s important to have a balanced budget over the span of several years. Keep millage rate stable. 

Roth: No thoughts on this; I haven’t looked into it. That’s why I’ve been going to committee meetings to learn more about it.

Vidovic: It’s not horrible but there’s always room for improvement. For example in city parks, why are we pulling out established and native plants and putting in annuals and grass turf that requires constant upkeep and water? Why are we buying plastic products and preaching sustainability? 

Salaries; higher ups making big salaries but there are twenty-three positions that make less than $11 per hour. We need to shore up city reserves for projects such as Bishop Creek that will cost the city a lot of money.

Ayoub: I’m a CPA and it’s important to me to keep the budget balanced. We haven’t raised the millage rate in four years. The budget is the biggest policy initiative the commission passes every year. To get people interested in the budget is an enormous challenge.

We’ll have meetings where we were passing the budget and we don’t have anybody in attendance. We encourage people to attend. Maybe they trust us to do the right thing.

Our reserves are very healthy. We have emergency and stabilization funds and additional money on top of it. We’re over where we need to be.

Do you have website and will it or does it include your donors?  

Diaz: Yes and no. The information is on the city website. My donors have been mostly family and friends and now more city residents. I’m very proud that I manage my own campaign. That means the messaging and what people say; I’m accountable to that — if someone misrepresents me they know I will address it.

Roth: I hadn’t thought of it, but it’s on the city website. My campaign is mostly self-funded with some money from friends. It’s a small grassroots campaign and I didn’t seek endorsements as I want to stay unbiased and independent.

Vidovic: Donors are found on city website. I’m not updating my site much; I’m getting out knocking on doors. I’d love for people to look where my money’s coming from. It’s not coming from the real estate agents and developers and city planners … Who is giving me money are local residents … with a lot of small donations. My opponent has received thirty to forty-five percent of his campaign contributions from real estate agents and other commercial developers. 

Ayoub: No, they’re all listed on the city website. It’s public record.

Contributions from the city’s M-2 Treasurer Reports as of publication:

  • Ayoub:  $21,495
  • Diaz:     $8,116
  • Estok:    $772
  • Roth:     $2,707
  • Vidovic:  $10,347

Some candidates offered final thoughts:

Estok: I want to revamp city code re[garding] zoning and get citizen involvement in large budget questions.

Diaz: I’m not interested in the hostility in the city; I don’t need to do that as I’m well-qualified and I have no conflicts of interest. I’ve served for six years and am passionate about Safety Harbor. I want the best for the city and residents; my core value is that the community is the most important thing — keeping people happy and engaged in the city. If the residents want development, great. If they want something else, that’s great also.

Roth: I’m running because I worked with the Sierra Club to get Safety Harbor to agree to the Ready For 100 initiative. In that process I attended a few city council meetings and I observed what I considered dysfunction and a disregard for the viewpoints of residents. After following up on this I found that there’s a large group of people who felt the same way.

There have been a few articles about our local election, some with a focus on the controversies between candidates, in local news media. Here are links to this additional coverage:

Candidate websites often include biographical information and formal policy positions. We’ve included links here for further reference.


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Kate has lived in Safety Harbor since 2003. She has a Master’s in Library & Information Science and worked as a Library Media Specialist for 8 years in Pinellas County. Currently Kate is self-employed in Marketing and Sales Administration and continues to encourage research and Information Literacy. She is an avid bicyclist and audiobook addict. Kate’s interests are cooking, environmental issues and photography.