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Longboat Key Thursday, Sep. 30, 2010 7 years ago

Experience at center of commission battle

by: Robin Roy City Editor

Nora Patterson
Age: 66
Family: Married
Hometown: New York
Education: Bachelor’s in psychology from Duke University and master’s in educational psychology from University of Florida
Career: Teacher, owner of garden and landscaping business, Realtor, real-estate investor, city commissioner and county commissioner

Why are you the best candidate?
While 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 12 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 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.

What will be your top three priorities during 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 average wages, making permanent a fund created last fall to add to these efforts.

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.

3. Retain quality services and substantial reserves without increasing tax rates. We can do this through consolidation of county services, use of technology and growth of our tax base.

What would be the first thing you would cut from the budget?
There are not whole departments or services that should be removed from the budget, although some things should be cut, like bus routes that few people ride. I believe in consolidation of services to save money and to be more efficient.

I would like to cut back on equipment purchases, and the commission is asking that automobiles, buses and/or fire engines, as well as computers, be replaced less often.

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

Did the commission make the right decision on spring-training baseball?
I believe that we made the right decision. When baseball was first discussed, the local economy was still humming. The teams were asking for a great deal of money, and I felt that given the number of other attractions in Sarasota that it was not a great use of tourist development moneys. Then, as the construction industry tanked, tourism started to weaken.

As head of the Tourist Development Council, I heard often from hoteliers and mom-and-pop owners of motels that they could not afford to lose spring training as a draw. The price tags discussed with the teams we negotiated with were extremely expensive, but the final deal that was achieved was a good one.

The cost is about $1.2 million a year from tourist tax only, not from local taxpayers’ pockets, to float the 30-year bond. Combined with state money earmarked for the purpose some years ago, the public investment is less than most communities have offered, and the deal was structured favorably.

Some perceive the county as being unfriendly to business. Whether it’s true or not, how can that perception be changed?
We do sometimes hear that the county is unfriendly to business. Poor economic conditions make it 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 will soon be issued for us to discuss, and we need to seriously consider issues that are raised. Processing permits takes a long time 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 a better local performance.

What is the best way to attract new businesses?
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. There are a variety of specific incentives that we use already, including impact-fee abatement; participation in the Florida Targeted Quality Industries program, which provides financial assistance financed 80% by the state and 20% by local governments; and the use of our economic-development fund started about a year ago.
Now, because of the passage of a referendum in August, we have also the ability to abate county and municipal taxes for up to 10 years for new and expanding businesses. I believe the Economic Development Corporation that we contract with for recruitment efforts should become more innovative and more aggressive.

Recent successes that will likely produce more than 940 new jobs in the next few years represent a great start.

Mark Hawkins
Age: 58
Family: Married with two children and seven grandchildren
Hometown: Evansville, Ind.
Education: Business degree from University of South Florida
Career: Former GTE manager, construction-company manager and currently the owner of a general-contracting company

Why are you the best candidate?
The position of county commissioner is one that requires someone with extensive managerial and business knowledge. Someone who also has experience in handling large operational budgets, employee issues, local knowledge of the area, recent small-business experience, construction/development experience and the ability to work with all groups. My path over the last 30 years has prepared me for this position.

What will be your top three priorities during the next four years? 
There is just one top priority, and that is job creation. Sarasota County has more than 20,000 people out of work, with the county depending on the EDC to correct it. The EDC has only brought in 1,390 jobs since 2007 at a cost of $4.5 million in taxpayer money. This is not the answer. The answer is a three-point attack that involves everyone.

First, we need to keep the small business we have now. Second, our tourism industry has been hurt by the recession and the perception that we have oil on our beaches. To correct this problem we need to increase our tourism budget, so that we can better reach new markets, work with international flights direct to Sarasota, defuse the oil perception and better market our arts, parks and real-estate opportunities.

Third, construction is flat with only a total of only 385 new-home permits issued for the year. To correct this problem we need to give developers a yes-or-no vote on their projects in months, not years. Permits should be issued in weeks, not months.

What would be the first thing you would cut from the budget? 
All projects currently on schedule to complete during the next two years should be put in a “want” or “need” category. Wants should be put off until they can be funded without using reserves. Needs should be placed in order of most needed to least needed.

Did the commission make the right decision on spring-training baseball?
As someone who has lived here my whole life, I am happy to see baseball back. Was it handled right? No. First, the city of Sarasota voted not to spend money to build a new stadium. Then, we tried to get the Red Sox and the Cubs. Next (the city of Sarasota), purchased property on U.S. 301 to build the stadium.
And, then, the county found money to rebuild the existing stadium and bring in the Baltimore Orioles.
While all this was going on, the County Commission was found by a judge to have violated Sunshine Laws. There were problems with the bidding process, where there appeared to be bid fixing, and now we are looking at losing $6 million in grants, because the county is still being sued over the process.

Some perceive the county as being unfriendly to business. Whether it’s true or not, how can that perception be changed?
As outlined by Commissioner Jon Thaxton, Sarasota County has an anti-business climate that needs to change. He stated that the anti-business climate is there because we are considered “slow, costly, unpredictable and difficult to deal with.”

As a small-business person who has been on this side of the gavel for the last 30 years I would agree.
The EDC also agreed with this.

In a recent poll that it took and gave to the County Commission in April of this year it stated that 85% of small businesses are unhappy with Sarasota County government, and 20% of those businesses are looking to leave Sarasota County because they are tired of it. As a small-business owner, I can work with those disgruntled companies to keep them here by correcting those problems.

What is the best way to attract new businesses?
This needs to be accomplished by using every tool and community group to sell the advantages of living and working in Sarasota County. As stated above, just using the EDC to make this happen will not work.

Contact Rob Roy at [email protected].



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