Commission race focuses on transparency

 

Commission race focuses on transparency

 

Date: October 7, 2010
by: Robin Roy | City Editor

 
 

November’s County Commission District 2 race is unlike any other local election this year. Added to the normal battle between two driven candidates is the fact that Commissioner Joe Barbetta and Cathy Antunes have had a yearlong antagonistic relationship.

Before she decided to run for office, Antunes, an Independent, formed a citizens group and sued the county and Barbetta over spring-training negotiations.

Sarasota Citizens for Responsible Government claimed Barbetta and other county commissioners and employees violated Sunshine Laws. A judge ruled primarily in the county’s favor, stating that commissioners did not intentionally break the law, and no sanctions were ordered.

Barbetta has called the lawsuit frivolous.


Joe Barbetta
(Republican)

Age: 64
Family: Married with two children and one grandchild
Hometown: Clifton Park, N.Y.
Education: Economics degree from Fordham University and law degree from Union University-Albany
Career: Retired attorney

Why are you the best candidate?
I believe that my business background, legal experience, volunteer experience and 14-plus years on the County Planning Commission, along with my 28 years as a Sarasota County resident and past four years as a county commissioner, provide me with the background, experience and discipline for the job. These are tough times and not conducive for someone with no real experience in what is required to do the job properly.

What will be your top-three priorities during the next four years?
1. Jobs and the economy. Foster, encourage and help facilitate existing-business expansion and, where appropriate, seek out and help facilitate new business relocation — all with the goal of quality job growth. Utilize the recently passed voter referendum allowing ad valorem and tangible property-tax exemptions for business expansions and new business relocations as one of the tools.

2. Strong fiscal responsibility. Maintain adequate reserves and a stable tax base with no tax increases and, as best as possible, maintain existing levels of service, including public safety and emergency services, along with arts and culture and human services. Look for economies of scale, consolidation where appropriate and possibilities of privatization, if feasible, without compromising levels of service.

3. Focus on redevelopment and in-fill. Encourage compact, transit-oriented development, pedestrian and bike friendly, with trolley circulators in the urban areas and concentrate on mixed uses, walkability and compatibility. 

What would be the first thing you would cut from the budget?
I would address our leasing of property. Stop any further leasing and look to consolidating operations in our existing buildings that we own. Secondly, I’d look at delaying purchases of new equipment and/or vehicles, in hopes that we can get extra life out of them and defer replacement. Couple all that with consolidation of services and economies of scale wherever appropriate.

Did the commission make the right decision on spring-training baseball?
Yes, we did. It goes without saying that there is a clear economic impact resulting from spring training, as is evidenced by the Office of Tourism and Economic Development’s spring-training analysis, along with the studies that we commissioned. In addition, we heard loudly and clearly from our merchants, hoteliers and restaurateurs as to the impact. Furthermore, we had 84 years of tradition and history of spring training, where impacts could be measured.

Along with spring training, we had numerous ancillary benefits year-round, with the Ed Smith and Twin Lakes complexes, including Little League baseball, high school and AAU tournaments also generating tourism and economic impacts. All improvements and renovations were paid for with the State of Florida Baseball Retention grant and the bonding of the half-cent of the tourist tax. None of our existing taxpayers had to pay any of their tax dollars for these facilities.

Some perceive the county as being unfriendly to business. Whether it’s true or not, how can that perception be changed?
We must always show a friendly “How may I help you?” attitude. The word “can’t” should be an absolute last resort. Each day, the county business centers, along with our economic-development people, should make sure the message that we’re open for business is spread throughout the community and beyond our borders. I truly believe that this is happening now, and the perception is being addressed and changed. Furthermore, we have requested an independent review of our business policies and are awaiting the results, which I believe are forthcoming shortly.

What is the best way to attract new businesses and industries to Sarasota County?
Maintaining that outstanding quality of life — keeping Sarasota that special place where people want to live, work, shop, play and send their children to school. That’s for starters and probably the main reason why a lot of us are here. In this day and age, especially with technology, people can live almost anywhere, so quality of life is a key factor. Add to that good tax policy, availability of a quality trained workforce, availability of properly zoned land, reasonable fees and an expedited process, and we become attractive for business relocation. Although the state has not been very competitive along these lines, Sarasota County has become somewhat more aggressive in facilitating existing business expansion and relocation.


Cathy Antunes
(Independent)

Age: 47
Family: Married with two children and three stepchildren
Hometown: Queens, N.Y.
Education: History degree from University of Virginia
Career: Hospital sales representative for Sanofi-Aventis

Why are you the best candidate?

I bring 20 years of successful sales and marketing experience to the table. I know what it is to produce a financial result year after year. Our current leadership has skimped on promotional dollars for tourism and has not engaged in rigorous analysis of return-on-investment for our tax dollars. I also bring an appreciation for the power of collaboration with the public and a commitment to open government. I will bring a new independent voice to the commission, focused on effective economic decisions, cooperation and accountability.

What will be your top-three priorities during the next four years? 
1. Diversifying and strengthening local businesses to support job creation and supporting and strengthening tourism.

2. Conducting county business transparently, with accountability and inclusivity. The public has a seat at the table, and voter input is solicited and respected.

3. Protecting and improving our environment and quality of life.

What would be the first thing you would cut from the budget? 
I would look for cuts in information-technology spending. It’s a particular concern. Sarasota County’s chief information officer left more than a year ago amid concerns about $20 million in no-bid contracts and an FBI inquiry into IT spending. The 2009 Citizen Budget Task Force reviewed our county budget and submitted its report in August 2009. It recommended an independent steering committee to oversee IT spending and similar committees for other aspects of the county budget. More than a year later, the County Commission has not appointed an independent steering committee. If elected, I will support the appointment of the citizens committee to evaluate and reduce IT spending.

Did the commission make the right decision on spring-training baseball?
No. The commission did not give any value to the overwhelming evidence, showing that tens of millions of dollars for professional stadiums do not bring a worthwhile return on investment for communities. The commission would not allow a sports economic expert from University of South Florida to come give them a free presentation reviewing the economic data on stadium subsidies. They relied on a consultant report prepared by a company that lists NHL, NFL, MLB and NBA teams as its client base. The lack of due diligence was ridiculous, and the lack of analysis would not fly in the private sector.

Commissioners denied the public a legally required referendum on their planned stadium spending in 2008, because they believed the public would say no to their plans. Had the required referendum been held and had the public voted in favor of borrowing more than $20 million to rebuild Ed Smith Stadium, I would not have founded a citizen watchdog group that observed the county’s activities.

Finally, some citizens had the benefit of full transparency, while the rest of us did not know what the county was negotiating on our behalf. Due to the lack of due diligence, denial of a required public referendum and lack of transparency, the resulting decision did not serve the citizens of Sarasota County.

Some perceive the county as being unfriendly to business. Whether it’s true or not, how can that perception be changed?
The county can begin by streamlining paperwork and requirements for entrepreneurs looking to start a business here in Sarasota County. We must have a customer-service mentality when it comes to working with our business community. The county can develop performance benchmarks regarding its own customer service to our business community. Let’s solicit feedback from the business community and focus on improving. If existing businesses are pleased with the support received from the county, our reputation will improve.

What is the best way to attract new businesses and industries to Sarasota County?
First, we must treat our existing businesses well. Next, we must cultivate our strengths and leverage them to attract new firms. Sarasota County is home to nationally ranked health care — the best in Southwest Florida. I favor providing incentives — tax incentives, low interest loans — to attract new firms. I am concerned that business grants are less efficient and less effective. Although the county may fund a loan program, a qualified non-profit can administer it. The banks are not stepping up and investing in small businesses. The county can help.

Contact Robin Roy at rroy@yourobserver.com.



 

 

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