COUNTY COMMISSION: Candidates clash over business, experience

 
 

County Commission hopeful Mark Smith alleges the county is not business-friendly and criticizes Commissioner Nora Patterson’s time in office. Patterson says Smith is exaggerating.

NORA PATTERSON
Age: 66
Family: Married
Hometown: New York City
Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Duke University and master’s degree in educational psychology from University of Florida
Career: Teacher, Realtor, real-estate investor, city commissioner and county commissioner

If elected, what will be your top three priorities for the next four years?
1. Bring jobs to the community, reduce unemployment and foster a diversified, stable economy. We must try hard to attract and assist new employers, especially those that pay good wages. We should continue to offer incentives both for new businesses and for expansions of existing businesses based on the jobs created and the average wages, making permanent a fund created last fall to add to these efforts. We already make use of impact-fee credits, use state incentive programs and have a fund to assist new and expanding businesses.

2. Strengthen tourism appropriate to Sarasota County. I will work to create more access to public lands for eco-tourism, support and enhance local arts venues and increase opportunities to view and participate in sporting events. We should be encouraging the building of more hotels and resorts, so as to bring more tourist dollars into the community. Leveraging assets like the new county rowing facility will help build momentum and demand.

3. Retain quality services and substantial reserves without increasing the county tax rates. We can do this through consolidation of county services, use of technology and growth of our tax base. I place special emphasis on public safety, on our great libraries and parks and on preserving our wonderful natural environment.

If you were the sole decision-maker, what would you cut from the county’s budget?
Bus routes where use is minimal should be cut or restricted to high-use times. Technology should be examined to see where it saves money and where expenditures could be scaled back. Investments made in public information should be scrutinized. I would like to cut back some equipment purchases, and the whole commission is asking that things like automobiles, buses and/or fire engines, as well as computers, be replaced less often. My opponent cites a $200 million budget expenditure in general government and states that is where he would cut. He should check what is normally grouped in that category. “General government” is a loose term that can include things like facility and vehicle maintenance, the county court system and other elected officials’ budgets, such as the tax collector, the tax assessor and the supervisor of elections, plus dozens more necessary expenditures. In addition, a figure of that magnitude in that category does not exist in the 2010 budget books.

What budget item do you consider sacred and would never cut?
I would not cut fire and ambulance services or the resources for the county sheriff and have never voted to do so. Public-safety issues should be sacred and held to a higher level of importance than other budget items.

Do you support the county’s continuing purchase of property? Would you advocate selling some property to help balance the budget?
The dollars for purchase of environmentally sensitive land, neighborhood parkland and waterfront access come from a referendum that set aside a millage for an extended number of years. I support continuing such linchpin purchases as the opportunities for great buys come along, but with reduced funding there will be fewer resources in the program for the next few years.

There are some incidental properties that had to be purchased over time for various reasons that are now deemed surplus. They have been identified and will be sold as the market allows. Such income is obviously one time and will go into fund balances for use as needed. Lands deliberately purchased under the voted millage should not be and cannot be sold anyway, especially if Florida Communities Trust helped pay for them.

Is Sarasota County business-friendly?
We sometimes hear that the county is unfriendly to business interests, especially from developers. The poor economic conditions all over the country make it very critical that we be as business-friendly as possible, both in reality and in reputation. Almost a year ago, we requested the Economic Development Corporation examine the county codes to see where there might be conditions that hamper businesses without good reason. A preliminary report is about to be issued for us to discuss, and we need to seriously consider all of the issues that are raised. Processes take a very long time, not just in Sarasota, but all over the state. Much of this is caused by mandates from the state and the reviews of other agencies, but I believe there is room for local improvement. Approval times and other issues have been greatly exaggerated by my opponent.

What is your position on tax incentives for qualifying businesses?
In order to be competitive with other states, it is necessary that we have the ability to offer businesses that provide good jobs with a variety of targeted incentives. Tax abatement, especially on the equipment of light industry, would be especially advantageous because many states don’t levy such a tax in the first place. I am in favor of approval of the referendum the County Commission has placed on the ballot.

What is the best way to attract new businesses and industries to Sarasota County?
One very important way to attract new businesses to Sarasota County is to keep up the quality of life in the community that we now enjoy, including maintaining a good educational system. I believe the Economic Development Corporation, which we contract with for such efforts, should become more innovative and more aggressive. Recent successes that will likely produce more than 840 new jobs in the next few years represent a great start. We have a wealth of people in our own community who still have great contacts in business, finance and industry, as well as a wealth of knowledge. This resource needs to be tapped.

With the declining jail population, does Sarasota County still need a new jail?
The jail population has decreased in the last year or two, making it less urgent to build more jail facilities. It is realistic, however, to believe that in the next 10 years or so, we will need to have more jail facilities ready and they must be planned ahead of time. One reason the jail population decreased is because the sheriff identified a number of prisoners who were not legally in this country and turned them over to immigration services to be deported. In addition, jail diversionary programs that provide counseling and monitoring have proven effective both delivered within and outside of the jail itself.

How do you address your opponent’s criticism of you as a “career politician?”
It’s not true. My career has been much more than politics. I began my career as a teacher. I purchased and successfully ran Greenwood Garden Center for years before selling the business. I was, and still am, a licensed real-estate broker. I have been, and am, a principal and investor in a number of companies, ranging from product development to real estate. My successful experience, as a businessperson and investor, my knowledge of the county budget and my ability to analyze and understand the complexity of county issues will be useful in these difficult times. If my opponent had innovative ideas to offer, he would not resort to such criticism.

Why are you the best candidate?
Although the ultimate decision is up to the voters, I believe that my conservative approach to county government and my own personal business skills are important in these difficult times. In the 11 years that I have served Sarasota County, I have a record of solid accomplishments. The county has a wonderful and improved library system, an improved park and trail system, a more useful transit system and much better flood control. We have invested in a more workable roadway grid with additional already funded road segments to be built in the next couple of years. We have done all this while cutting the county tax rates substantially and building up a $50 million disaster reserve, plus a $90 million unrestricted fund balance that will help tide us over these tough times without cutting essential services. I have been privileged to part of a lot of many positive changes in our community. I serve because I love Sarasota County and am honored to do so.


MARK SMITH
Age: 55
Family: Married with two daughters
Hometown: Detroit
Education: Bachelor’s of science and master’s of architecture from Georgia Institute of Technology
Career: Architect

If elected, what will be your top three priorities for the next four years?
1. Jobs. We have got to open Sarasota County up for business. (We) need to diversify our economy and compete with neighboring counties in attracting corporate business and clean industry/manufacturing. With the creation of new business opportunities, our local economy will rebound. We have 12% unemployment, yet the County Commission hires outside firms for county projects. There must be a change in the procurement process.

2. The budget. Sarasota County has a $1 billion budget, but is still running a deficit.

3. Process. Property owners and potential property owners for years have had to navigate through a circuitous approval process that could take years with no predictable outcome, spending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, in fees and professional services.

If you were the sole decision-maker, what would you cut from the county’s budget?
There is more than $200 million in the general government and internal services portion of the budget. Reduce the size of government and make it more efficient and responsive.

What budget item do you consider sacred and would never cut?
I hold public safety sacred, but we have to make sure we are spending wisely. One of the main roles of government is to secure the public safety of its citizens.

Do you support the county’s continuing purchase of property? Would you advocate selling some property to help balance the budget?
Realizing that the voters approved the tax to acquire environmentally sensitive land and that that money can only be used for that purpose, I am in favor of purchasing raw land that has a minimum of maintenance required. I’m against any county expenditure of this type that will result in ongoing annual budget financial support.

Is Sarasota County business-friendly?
No. The EDC brought in Leadership Research Institute Inc. to conduct a series of focus groups in April with business leaders and those in the real-estate and construction industries. The recommendations coming from that study should be used to re-formulate the way the county works with the business community.

What is your position on tax incentives for qualifying businesses?
I believe that it is a good initial first step. We have got to make Sarasota County more competitive with the surrounding counties and other counties in Florida. However, in the long haul we need to make sure that our existing businesses are not put at an unfair disadvantage as we encourage their competition to move here. We need a fair and balanced tax base so that all businesses can grow and compete.

What is the best way to attract new businesses and industries to Sarasota County?
The County Commission needs to take a leadership roll. I plan to meet with the targeted businesses personally and to “sell” Sarasota County. There is no reason that Sarasota County should not be more successful. We are one hour from Tampa, two hours from Orlando, three hours from Miami. We have a great airport, great road system, great amenities — beaches, climate, available land and a population that is ready to go to work. Too long this county has sat back and waited for things to happen and then reacted. It is time to be proactive.

With the declining jail population, does Sarasota County still need a new jail?
No. The sheriff has done a great job reducing the prisoner population so that a new jail is not now needed.

You criticize your opponent as a “career politician.” Is there value in her experience?
Twenty years is a career. It’s not so much a criticism as it is a fact. Of course there is experience, but the question is, is it a good experience? My opponent has voted for every increasing county budget since she was elected in 1998. In 1999 the budget was $648 million and peaked in 2007 at $1.14 billion. (From 2005 to 2007) the county budget jumped $271,188,768 — a 31% increase. The average inflation rate for those (years) was 3.1%. The Legislature tried to save Sarasota County taxpayers from this tax-and-spend insanity with proposed legislation. Commissioner Patterson fought against capping spending and giving back the taxpayers’ money.

Why are you the best candidate?
As an architect, I have the professional background and training to take on complex problem solving, always being aware of the budget and the timeframe to get the job done. As a small businessperson, I know what it is like to make payroll in a tough economy. I look at being your county commissioner as a natural extension of the 20 years of volunteer work I have done in our community. I was raised in Sarasota County. I have raised my children here, and I have called this community my home most of my life. I started my business here, and I know how hard it is to do business here. We need new leadership. We need a new attitude. We need someone with new energy and a fresh perspective who can get this county moving again.

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