News And Updates
Published By: Herald Tribune
Three commissioners, six challengers, and potential to shift balance of power
By KATE SPINNER
Candidates hoping to replace three county commissioners this year promise to cut taxes, broaden the county's job opportunities and make government more efficient.
The six challengers say they are more financially savvy, sensitive to residents' needs and concerned about natural resources than the current commissioners.
The incumbents counter that change takes time, and that their experience and commitment make them the best people for the job.
The election on Nov. 4 could shift the balance of power and affect key decisions by the five-member County Commission, which oversees policy for a county of 155,000 people and a $1.16 billion budget.
Charlotte County, like most Florida communities, is grappling with a severe real estate downturn and a recessionary economy that threatens to pinch the county's tax revenues. At the same time, it is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Charley in 2004. It must also manage the large Babcock Ranch development in the south, recurring problems with an inadequate water supply, and environmental issues with coastal development and phosphate mining in the Charlotte Harbor watershed.
But the issue that will decide the election is taxes, Republican and Democratic party leaders said.
"The taxpayers in Charlotte County want a message that says: 'I will reduce spending in the county. I will do it without cutting your level of service,'" said Bob Starr, chairman of the Charlotte County Republican Executive Committee.
Democrats are thinking along similar lines.
Voters are fed up with frivolous spending, lackluster economics and a commission that fails to listen, said Joan Fischer, president of the Charlotte County Democratic Club.
Fischer said commissioners approved spending increases last year when they knew the state would mandate cuts.
"They made a few cuts, but not the right ones," Fischer said.
Incumbents Tom Moore and Tom D'Aprile say spending increased because people wanted more parks, fire stations and law enforcement. Now the county is prepared to pull back on expenses, they said.
Likewise, incumbent Tricia Duffy said reducing expenses and lowering taxes is the county's top priority.
"I've been in favor of that in the whole year that I've been a commissioner," said Duffy, who was appointed to her seat by Gov. Jeb Bush after her predecessor left in the middle of her term.
Duffy plans to run, but has not yet filed campaign papers.
Several challengers said the county needs to act fast to reform taxing districts that cover specific communities.
Municipal Service Benefit Units and Municipal Service Taxing Units pay for roads, drainage and other infrastructure. But because there are so many separate districts, it is hard for the county to get a good deal for work by contractors. Homeowners pay for the added expense.
Many residents have protested the system two years in a row, but no alternative has been proposed.
The county needs to fix the system now, said candidate Douglas Tucker, 35, a former mortgage broker. He is running for the District 5 seat.
"People don't have a problem paying taxes if they are fair, as long as they see results in a reasonable amount of time," Tucker said.
The MSBU system is not going to change unless the commissioners change, said Robert Skidmore, 26, who is seeking the District 3 seat.
He said the county needs to diversify its tax base by following a sound economic development plan.
Skidmore is a membership director of the Englewood/Cape Haze Area Chamber of Commerce and a former Airport Authority board member.
Steven Silver, 25, is also running for District 3. He said one of the county's biggest problems is its lack of good jobs.
"We get too many box retailers dropping in here," Silver said. "When the majority of jobs are under $10 an hour, Charlotte County is just not liveable."
Silver, a technician at Barrett's Quality Electric in Nokomis, is the only Democrat running so far.
He suggested making the county more business-friendly.
The county's regulations repel businesses, said Russell Garrod, a real estate agent and custom home builder seeking the District 1 seat. He wants less regulation and to privatize aspects of government to save money.
Simply changing the county's mish-mash of residential lots to commercial zoning would draw business, said Donald Coppola, a former commission member who is vying for the District 5 seat.
He said the county's lack of planning has led to unwise residential growth and a shortage of commerce, which would create jobs and shift the tax burden off residences.
Ruth Bromberg, a Sierra Club member and former legal assistant, criticized the county's record of allowing development in the wrong places. She also opposed giving builders a reprieve from impact fees, which are needed to fund road construction.
Bromberg's toughest criticism is that commissioners do not listen to constituents. As an example, she pointed to their vote to sign a compact with phosphate mining company Mosaic Inc. Residents had packed the commission chambers to oppose the agreement.
"That I found particularly upsetting, when the citizens came out, filled that room, stated their feelings and basically were ignored," Bromberg said.
The last time three seats were up for grabs, in 2004, Moore was the only newcomer elected. He replaced Mac Horton, who did not seek re-election. Charlotte has not elected three newcomers since 1996, though in 2000 voters ousted two incumbents.