3 seats, 6 hopefuls and 5 weeks to go
Gary Pinnell | Highlands TodaySEBRING
Published: September 30, 2012
Published: September 30, 2012
Ten candidates filed for three seats on the Highlands County commission. One didn't qualify. Three were winnowed in the Aug. 28 primary. Six remain on the Nov. 6 ballot.
In District 1, Jim Brooks won the Republican primary, and he's meeting Democrat Sally Ann Mowery in the Nov. 6 general election. The winner takes Barbara Stewart's place, who is retiring after eight years in office.
In District 3, Ron Handley was appointed a year ago to replace Jeff Carlson. In August, Handley won a three-way primary, and he is meeting Democrat Michael Stone in November. Stone did not return three phone messages left on his answering machine and with his wife before the noon Friday deadline for this story.
In District 5, incumbent Republican Greg Harris wasn't challenged in the GOP primary, but his former YMCA employee, Greg Smith, is running as a no-party candidate.
Candidates were asked six questions:
Q: What specific experiences have prepared you for county commissioner?
Brooks: I was in the environmental health section for seven years, and I did food service inspection, dairy, water supplies, sewer plants, migrant labor housing. I got a broad overview of regulations. I served five years as EMS director. I was a department head and had budgetary responsibility for 30-plus employees. I've been on the Planning and Zoning Commission since 1989, which I recently resigned from. I developed the comp plan and land regulations and changes for the past 20 years. The more important thing, for the past 27 years, is that I have run a (mobile home park). I have filed plats over the years, and pulled building permits. I have also had to deal with solid waste, because we're licensed to haul our own garbage. And I've dealt with the licenses and permits that we have to pull and renew every year because we have a sewer plant permit.
Handley: I've run my own business (Homes by Handley) for 35 years, and that gives me the background to make good business decisions. And I've served on three different bank boards, so I know the financial aspects.
Harris: Caring. Common sense. Being respectful of others is huge. That's helped me gain a lot of respect. Since I graduated from Michigan, I've been in upper management or supervisory roles. Budgeting has been helpful. Setting expectations and holding people accountable, and asking tough questions.
Mowery: I had my own business. I worked for the U.S. Department of Education, where I had to interpret the law, regulations and policy and give that information to lay folks. I've held several leadership positions. I've been president of Rotary in Indianapolis, at the time they held their national convention in Indianapolis. I was principal at a residential school, kindergarten to high school. I was responsible for maintenance, engineering, everything from a leaky faucet to an ornery child to a staff member that wasn't doing her job.
Smith: I have been part of several groups in this community, Drug Free Highlands, Teen Pregnancy Prevention Alliance and others. I've been involved in community health improvement planning; it's pushed me to see more of the community and to help the community, which is why I decided to run. Most of my work has been with fitness, with the YMCA for 14 years. I learned how to run a business. I'm also a CPR first aid instructor for private classes and for Florida Hospital and South Florida State College.
Q: Should the county commissioners only formulate policy, or should they help the county administrator to manage?
Brooks: A little of both. You hire the administrator to run the operation. I've been in meetings with county administrators and staff, especially to get feedback. That doesn't mean I would be a micromanager, by any means.
Handley: It's our job to set policy, and let the administrator do his or her job.
Harris: We formulate the policy and let the county administrator and the department heads run the county. We've had commissioners in the past who tried to run the county, and that's not very pretty. It's very distracting.
Mowery: They direct the manager's office to do certain things. The county commissioners are elected by the people; they should do what their constituents want.
Smith: The administrators are hired to do the managing, the commissioners are elected to set policy, and they hire the administrator to run the county the proper way.
Q: On which issues have you disagreed with the county commission?
Mowery: There have been several recently with the firing of the administrator. It seemed to me that there could have been some other measures taken, some other considerations, and if you want to get a little bit edgy about it, financially. In my background, I've worked in adult planning and education, and I have worked with people who needed to improve or change jobs. I want to think that something could have been done that could have been a little friendlier.
The tourism tax and the use of those funds, that needs to be reviewed. It has red flags.
Harris: One was the firing of Rick Helms. I think that was very wrong. The same day that two employees got 10-year pins, they let go of a 38-year employee, without a thank you.
We turned down a million-dollar grant for housing, because the other commissioners didn't think we could oversee that appropriately. We could have rehabilitated local homes and put local people to work. I understand the idea that the federal grants have to stop, but the grant went to another county.
Handley: I wouldn't have fired Michael Wright. He was doing a fine job for the county, and he was let go improperly.
I would never have built an asphalt plant. We shouldn't be in the asphalt business. When times were good, we did like so many private individuals, we spent a lot of money. Had we made better decisions back then, it would have made life a little easier for the current budget.
Smith: Firing the county administrator, not continuing to let that contract finish out. It would have been more cost effective for this community. I think they needed to be a little bit stronger in their research about it as well.
The asphalt plant, I think that does need to work into more of a privatized group or corporation that the county can support.
Brooks: The one big one, I don't think the county needs to be in the asphalt business, but we own it now and we need to deal with.
I disagreed with them on the necessity of impact fees. When I came to Highlands County in 1967, it had 29,000 residents. Who paid for the infrastructure then? Impact fees were a result of several things, the fact that other counties were doing it, and that growth had gone crazy.
Q: County government has been consolidating departments. Should that continue?
Smith: It's always an aspect you want to keep looking at. You've got to run it like a business. Sometimes, we have to join things together to make it work efficiently.
Harris: The mowing one (currently three departments mow lawns, parks and roadways) I don't really see. We're going to spend more staff time investigating that than we save. We only want to do it if it makes sense, and if there is a true savings.
Handley: We need to look at mowing. I still advocate (a possible merger between the Tourist Development Council and the Economic Development Commission-Industrial Development Authority).
Mowery: The tax assessor and clerk of courts, they are consolidating services. I was impressed with the way they were going about it. They were not cutting personnel; they were using their expertise across offices. The lawn maintenance, it would be more efficient to have it be consolidated. I am an economist. I do things that make economic sense. When I was married, I was called stingy and cheap. But they don't need to go around firing people either.
Brooks: Hopefully, it will reduce duplication. Hopefully, in that process, you may even reduce personnel to an extent. I think that all departments that have some overlapping responsibility should be considered for consolidation. I think that's an ongoing process.
Q: Which three important issues will the county commission face next year?
Brooks: One is that I don't see the revenue stream increasing. We need to be able to do more with less. Or do less. The government can't do everything for everybody. We keep chipping away at the reserve fund, and we can't keep doing that.
The recycling decision is what they're working on right now. It's going to be something that will affect everybody, one way or another. That's not a mandate by the state right now, it's a suggestion.
Are we going to stick with our interim administrator or look for somebody new? Or somebody old? I've heard all kinds of scenarios. The new commission should do that. That person is going to have to work with the county commission for four years. You don't want to tie the hands of future boards.
Mowery: Balance the budget, and that has to be done. I have to balance my budget.
We need to find ways to encourage jobs and employment for the residents.
Working with the recycling and waste management, that needs to be resolved.
Handley: I guess the first one is a lack of funds. Just like this year, we need to look at every department and find places to cut until we get there.
The next issue is deciding on a permanent county administrator. Ms. Fisher has done an excellent job, and we should look at her as a permanent administrator. I am also open to talking to other folks as well.
The Sebring Parkway and the completion of Phase II. I believe it needs to be done, not necessarily as currently planned, and there are some adjustments being made – revised plans for crossing in front of the hospital. (What Commissioner Barbara Stewart has called suicide lanes.) That hasn't been formally adopted yet. Phase III, I don't think that's something we need to get in a hurry about.
Harris: Budget. We've cut and we've cut and we've cut, and we're running out of cuts. We're going to have to look to the constitutionals and what they can help us with.
The interim county administrator. The commission that's coming in should make that decision. I feel strongly about that.
The sheriff's building. We allocated $5 million, and we said we can probably do 20,000 square feet, and then all the sudden we spend $2.7 million for a property and evidence building. Half of what we allocated is gone. Restoration Center has gone down from $4.2 million to $1.5 million. At some point, you've got to say, "Wow, that's too good a price to pass up."
Smith: The budget is always going to be the major issue.
Getting more businesses and groups here as well, like Swamp Hammock. If the group does agree to make improvements, I see it as a positive aspect for this community.
Q: If you are elected, how many hours a week will you devote to the office?
Smith: This is going to be my full-time job, at least 60 to 80 hours a week.
Handley: Right now, I'm probably averaging 30 hours a week.
Harris: I have spent 40 hours on commission activities in the past. That usually happens when we attend out-of-town Florida Association of Counties Conferences, three to four times per year. However, we will not be doing much of that in the future. In a normal week, it's every bit of 20 hours. What you don't see is the time spent on our packets, which we have to study on the weekends. On Monday, you ask staff questions and meet with staff one on one, and the calls you get from citizens, and going to meet with them.
Brooks: I haven't worked a 40-hour week since 1980, when I took over EMS. If it takes 40 hours, I'll put them in. I hesitate to say whether I'll work 20 or 30 or 40. Whatever is necessary, I'll be prepared.
Mowery: Pretty close to full time. That should be spent to make sure that all the proposals have accurate information. A lot of inaccurate information has been given to the commission.
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