Chandler, Culpepper share similar visions in friendly forum

OKEECHOBEE — The two challengers for Okeechobee County Commission, running against District 4’s Terry Burroughs (board chairman) and District 2 incumbent Bryant Culpepper, faced off with the incumbents Aug. 6 at the Okeechobee Political Forum.

Noel Chandler

 

Bryant Culpepper

The opposing candidates, Noel Chandler in District 2, who’s a sitting Okeechobee City Council member, and Fred Darrell Brown along with the two commissioners gave opening statements in the event at Osceola Middle School, then addressed questions submitted by county residents. Several dozen interested citizens sat in the stands, observing quietly. The District 2 candidates went first during the forum (story appeared in Wednesday’s Okeechobee News and is on the website, okeechobeenews.net).

Incumbent Culpepper was invited to go first with his opening statement. “Two minutes?” he inquired as he started. The moderator replied, “For you, I know that will be difficult, but … Yes, two.” The icebreaker cracked up the audience.

Mr. Culpepper said he had to walk down memory lane for a bit. “I moved here in 2003 and was here seven years when I decided on this crazy idea of running for county commission. And people laughed because it was like an unsaid rule that you had to be here 20, 25 years to consider that. That’s my goal that I’ve tried to achieve since 1986,” he said, going on to describe his service on many other boards, which enabled him “to be able to build the confidence I need so when I got to this point, I could make decisions that would affect our families in a positive way.”

“The beauty of this election is that Noel Chandler and myself are good friends,” he declared, relating how, after he’d filed to run, they met by coincidence in Publix’s parking lot one day and discussed how people hate bad politics, “backbiting that turns people off. Every time you turn somebody off in politics, that’s less people making decisions for more of us,” Mr. Culpepper pointed out, saying the two agreed to a theme of civility in their campaigns. He went on for a few minutes and finished with this: “I will tell you right now that the board that I sit on with the members, the ones that were elected in the last two-year term, is the best board I’ve ever seen since I have been here. We all work together, we’re a well-oiled machine, we all have the same things in mind.”

The audience began chuckling but not because of what he said; rather, he’d exceeded his time. Mr. Culpepper exclaimed, “Close!” but the moderator clarified, “No cigar!”

Mr. Chandler then took his turn. “I’m a seventh-generation Okeechobeean. I’ve seen many, many changes,” he began. “We have a future coming up now that we need to be ready for. If you’ve got somebody coming to your house, you want to spruce it up a little bit, kind of clean it up and sweep the floors. That’s what Okeechobee needs to do.

“This place needs to be in top shape if we want people to come in and build a business and buy homes. Then they can see this community is growing and it’s worth coming to. I just want to thank everyone who came out tonight. I appreciate everyone here. You’ve all been friends of mine and helped me through a lot of problems. I just can’t say enough about how I’m dedicated to Okeechobee. Thank you,” he said.

Citizens’ questions posed
Three questions were asked of the candidates, contributed by citizens and audience members.

In the upcoming general fund, how would you balance the budget without dipping into the reserves?

Mr. Chandler: “It’s very difficult not to go into the reserves when we have such a vast amount of fire department, police department (costs). Now we’ve got so many mandates given us by the state, that it’s hard to find any monies left out there … so we’ve got to come up with different ideas and new ideas. We might have to go back and look at the old books and find out new ways to come up with different ways to tax … well, not tax, but anything you do is going to be a new tax. But we’ve got to come up with new ways. Maybe new people coming in to town, maybe tax them a little more than the people that are already here. That’s not going to happen, either, I mean, heck, you do that … (and) it’s almost a Catch-22 situation. It’s hard to have a budget without getting into the reserves, and a balanced budget, so you’ve just got to be hard-core and say, ‘Look, we can’t do that.’”

Mr. Culpepper: “Actually, we have. We were looking to do what the sheriff wanted to do and would have loved to have done that. But it was looking to go to 9 mills. If we would have done that it would’ve put people out of their homes. So we were very careful of that … and we beat up all the other departments trying to help out the situation. (Regarding salaries,) the last thing we wanted to do was see good people that we trained, leave. We spent hours and hours trimming every penny we could so that we could come to a compromise with the sheriff, hoping that when we get the new, $1.4 billion power plant on line, and Bass Pro on line, that we would have those additional revenues. … When people come to look at a new area for a new business, they look at your financials. Are you good keepers of your financial budget, and that’s what we wanted to show, because that’s what brings people in. As a matter of fact, we’ve shown the ad valorem taxes flat or reduced, seven years in a row. I am very proud of that … and I want to continue to work with this board to do exactly that.”

What is your vision for Okeechobee County and what’s the first action that you will take to work toward that vision?

Mr. Culpepper: “We actually have been working toward that vision. I know there’s realtors here … one of the first questions they’re asked when a new family or a new business comes in, ‘Do you have a safe community?’ Second question’s probably going to be, ‘How are your schools?’ So we work diligently to make sure that we secure, not only with the police department in the city, working more in conjunction with them — because we mutual aid with those folks, too, as well as the fire department — so it’s been my goal and the goal of this sitting board to make sure that the sheriff and all of our departments work to make sure we have a safe community. Because I think there’s a lot of things you want, but there’s things you have to have, and a safe community happens to be one. Everybody would like their taxes lowered, but you have to ask yourself, what level of service are you willing to accept? And we have worked hard to make sure that that stays where it is, and we’ve raised taxes only when absolutely necessary. And the MSTUs (Municipal Service Taxing Units) that we did for EMS and fire were to make sure that everybody in the county paid their fair share.”

Mr. Chandler: “The vision for this county should be where it’s taking in, like he said, that Florida Power & Light’s coming in, Bass Pro’s coming in. My vision would be to get this county in shape where we could put in infrastructure from the light here (at Wolf Road and U.S. 441 South) all the way down to State Road 78 to the river, (and) put in sewer. If you’re set up with sewer and roads and infrastructure, people will come here. So … when they come in and see we’ve already set up for it, and they can see we do want them, and give them some incentive to get here. I mean, that’s a hard thing to do, to give them an incentive and then take it back a couple of years later. My vision is get Okeechobee County growing, clean it up, better than what it is right now, and get the kinds of family businesses in here that people are going to want to stay. And just advertise, advertise, advertise. I was on the board at OUA, and we have a lot of good ideas, but we just can’t get funded with projects we want to do. And I said … what we do is get with Tallahassee and see if we can’t get better funding to get better infrastructure.

How would you describe the current state of our county’s economy, and please give a specific example to support your opinion.

Mr. Chandler: “It’s not great. We have to bring in many more ideas of what we want to do in the future, especially with our sheriff’s department and the mandates we have from the governor. We have to work with our schools, we have to work with our community. The biggest problem, I guess, and I’ve just got to get this out here, that we’re in dire need of more people coming into Okeechobee so we can get a better tax base. That’s my main thing, is raise our tax base. Getting people in here so we can raise our taxes, with more people, not raise our taxes but tax more people – and businesses, because the businesses pay all the taxes anyhow. I would just advocate that we just advertise, basically – what we’re going to do, where we’re going to do it, and how we’re going to get it done. But infrastructure is the main thing in getting people in Okeechobee.”

Mr. Culpepper: “One thing we’ve done is we hired an economic development team to come into Okeechobee, because what they are good at doing is developing and finding grants. When you’re a county of critical financial concern, as we are, those grants are available. In recent past years, we didn’t take advantage of the grants and now we are, and so we’re getting a lot of things done. One of the things that the school board candidates mentioned was the issues that they face about housing. We are desperate for affordable housing.

(People) don’t want to live in a 45- or 50-year-old single-wide mobile home. When they see that, it’s very hard to attract and keep good people. But we are … moving forward. We’ve got some exciting things coming in the next couple of years, hopefully Bass Pro will get started in November, and then the power plant comes online in June of next year. We will not get the revenues until the following full year, but … what that will allow us to do is not only fund our departments but start to bring down the ad valorem taxes, and that is one of the best incentives for bringing in new people.”

In their closing statements, Mr. Culpepper thanked Okeechobeeans “for letting me realize the dream I wanted to do, to work for people.”

“I think if you look at my record – because like Terry (Burroughs) said, there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ – I’ve tried to work with the board and sometimes I try to be the spearhead. You know, we have many things that this county needed to have fixed up, and what we’re doing now, what we’ve been doing is repairing and remodeling our assets. And I’ll give you a good example. Micco Bluff Center, the Agri-Civic Center, U.S. 98, Scott Driver, we’ve fixed those completely up and we’re booked months in advance where nobody was using them before, so that’s now revenue coming in.

“This is why I’m asking for your support. We’ve got a tremendous board, we’re doing great things, and I ask you to support us so we can keep the good times rolling and the good times coming,” Mr. Culpepper finished.

Mr. Chandler said: “I’m running for county commission because … I want to get some things accomplished. Okeechobee needs a lot of things. It needs people to come in Okeechobee. We need assets. We need infrastructure. We need new roads. We need all this stuff cleaned up coming into town. We need better code enforcement. But most of all, this is my community. I want it to be looking nice so when somebody drives by, they want to stop and say: ‘Look! I’d like to stop here and maybe live here.’ Like Bryant did. He came to Okeechobee and wanted to live here. I want other people to do that, too.

“So if they see what we have is going to be up to date, and in good order, then I think they’ll stay and we can entice more people to come. That’s where we’re going to get our revenue,” the city councilman finished.

Culpepper vs. Chandler

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