How did the local candidates answer the important questions?

Okeechobee County voters have many choices to make this election season; questions and answers below.

OKEECHOBEE — In the Okeechobee County Clerk of Court race, incumbent Sharon Robertson (DEM) is seeking re-election unopposed.

In the Okeechobee County Property Appraiser race, the candidates are Mickey Bandi (REP), Steve Cates (DEM), Russ Duncan (REP), Sharon Wallace (NPA) and D. Robert Wilson (REP). Republicans Mr. Bandi, Mr. Duncan and Mr. Wilson will be on the August primary ballot. The winner will face Mrs. Wallace, who has no party affiliation, and Mr. Cates, a Democrat, in the general election in November.

There are four candidates for sheriff: Michael Hazellief (NPA), William Markham (DEM), Noel Stephen (REP) and Daryl Stokes (REP). John Folbrecht (NPA) withdrew from the race. The Republicans — Mr. Markham, Mr. Stephen and Mr. Stokes — will be on the ballot in the August primary. The winner will face Mr. Hazellief in the general election.

Okeechobee County Supervisor of Elections Diane Hagan (NPA) is unopposed in her bid for re-election.

Okeechobee County Tax Collector Celeste Watford is also seeking re-election without opposition.

In the County Commission District 1 race, the candidates are: Phil Baughman (REP), Mark Brandel (REP), David Hazellief (REP), Michael Slayton (NPA) and Keith White (REP). Mr. Baughman, Mr. Brandel, Mr. Hazellief and Mr. White will be on the Republican primary ballot in August. The winner of that election will face Mr. Slayton in the general election. There is no incumbent in this race; the seat has been vacant since the 2014 death of Commissioner Ray Domer.

Okeechobee County Commission District 3 candidates are Brad Goodbread (REP), Bobby Keefe Jr. (NPA), Gail Powers (REP) and Debra Sales (REP). Mr. Goodbread, Ms. Powers and Ms. Sales will be on the August Republican primary ballot. The winner will face Mr. Keefe in the general election. The incumbent for District 3 seat, Frank Irby, is not seeking re-election.

County Commission District 5 candidates are: Frank Cunningham (REP), Weston Harvey (DEM) and Kelly Owens (REP). Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Owens will be on the August primary ballot. The winner will face Mr. Harvey in the general election in November. The incumbent for the District 5 seat, Margaret Helton, is not seeking re-election.

School Board District 2 representative Malissa Morgan is unopposed in her re-election bid.

In the District 4 School Board Race, the candidates are Linda Baker, Amanda Fuchswanz, Levi Johnson and Mindy Schoppmeyer. School board is non-partisan. All of the school board candidates will be on the August primary ballot.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top candidates will be in a runoff election in November. Current District 4 representative, India Riedel, is not seeking re-election.

Because there are candidates from more than one party in the race this year, the sheriff, property appraiser and county commission races will be close primaries. Florida is a closed primary state. Only registered Republicans may vote in the Republican primaries for those races.

All voters will vote in the school board race, which is nonpartisan.

In the county commission and school board races, although the candidates are required to live in the district which they represent, voting is county wide.

The primary election will be held Aug. 30. The last day to register to vote or to change party affiliation for that primary is Monday, Aug. 1. In primary elections, voters are entitled to vote the official primary election ballot of the political party they are registered with and no other.

You must be registered with your party of choice 29 days before a primary election.

Each voter will receive a ballot based on the legal registration address and party affiliation recorded on his or her registration record.

At a general election, you may vote for any candidate or question on the ballot, regardless of party affiliation.

Early voting begins Monday, Aug. 15, and continues through Saturday, Aug. 27, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

Early voting will take place at the Supervisor of Elections office, 304 N.W. Second St., Okeechobee.

Questions and answers for each candidate can be found below.


Okeechobee County Property Appraiser

Question: What in your opinion, is the biggest challenge currently facing the property appraiser’s office, and how do you propose to deal with it?

Mickey Bandi (REP): The biggest challenge facing the office is to continue to embrace useful and effective technology. New technology such as our tablet system and change finder which uses aerials to highlight construction, this must be analyzed and vetted prior to spending taxpayers’ dollars. Technology should also improve transparency for the public.

Steve Cates (DEM): I have been working out of town for the past six years and not sure of what the major challenges are at this time. When employed as the Senior Appraiser by the Okeechobee County Property Appraiser Office from 2001 to 2008  the major issue were the lawsuits: These lawsuits consumed a large amount of time and expenses. If elected I would try a different approach with these property owners. I would request information from these property owners to assist in reaching a fair and equitable assessment.

Russ Duncan (REP): The office suffers from diminished public confidence as a result of perceived favoritism and undervaluation of selected properties. Restoring transparency to the assessment process is a necessary step to restoring public confidence, In addition, state statues require properties to be assessed at least once every five years. The county has thousands of parcels which have not been assessed within the required time. I will develop a plan to rectify this deficiency.

Sharon K. Wallace (NPA): This office should be serving our community in a modern and responsible way. The challenge is ensuring that all real property is assessed in accordance with Florida Statutes. By merging Geographic Information Systems (GIS) with the Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA) database, assessments will be more efficient and accurate.

D. Robert Willson (REP): The inevitable fact of … change. All property owners, especially the middle class, landlords and small business owners must start having their needs met, while balancing the needs of the agricultural industry. This change can be done by a state certified professional property appraiser with over 25 year’s local experience.

Question: Do you think the property appraiser’s office is currently adequately staffed? Would you propose any changes in staffing?

Bandi: No, in 2002 we had 15 employees, today there are 10. We need at least another field appraiser, and we have one along with a vehicle in next year’s budget. We are doing a more thorough job of reviewing sales and homestead fraud and these things require more time.

Cates: Staffing of the office appears to be adequate, I would eliminate any contract employees that are not listed as the office staff. If these contract employees are needed, I would follow Okeechobee County’s policy on hiring these professionals as needed.

Duncan: Lack of leadership has degraded the office’s effectiveness. As a working property appraiser, I would not need an assistant property appraiser and would eliminate that position. I would create needed positions within the existing budgeted resources, including a Tangible Personal Property/Homestead Fraud Investigator, GIS mapper, and field appraiser.

Wallace: My plan is to work side-by-side with staff for the first six months after which time I will conduct performance reviews to identify their strengths. I will then set goals and objectives for the following six months and offer continuing education to staff to enhance their performance.

Willson: The changes needed to bring this office into the present deal with physical assets and technology. Having an assistant appraiser with a substantial salary is redundant and top heavy. The staff will have to accept change, as well as slightly different rolls. Current staff is not a main issue.

Question: What would you do to prevent abuse of homestead exemptions?

Bandi: I implemented an audit of every homestead in the county several years ago. This is a large piece of the $440,000 plus that we have assessed in taxes, interest and penalties for fraud. I plan on undertaking this project again in the near future.

Cates: Homestead Exemption Florida Statue Section 196.031 would be followed as outlined. Each year the homestead exemption applications would be reviewed to ensure that the person the exemption is listed under has not moved or passed away. The homestead exemption is not the only exemption, there are many other exemptions that would be reviewed on an annual bases.

Duncan: Homestead fraud, much like other under reporting, is a problem. There are parcels and accounts which not have been reviewed in over five years. A fraud investigator could investigate properties and other false claims of homestead, as well as ferret out under reporting in tangible personal property taxes. This position will be tasked with overseeing the mission of my administration to ensure property owners are treated equally.

Wallace: Taxpayers fraudulently receiving homestead exemptions negatively impact our already fiscally constrained county. Know this; I will pursue this aggressively. If you have an out-of-state, residency-based exemption on another property, we will place a tax lien against your properties and require you to pay a penalty, with interest.

Willson:  All exemptions are open to abuse. Therefore, immediately after taking office I will start a top-to-bottom review of ALL exemptions. We will use special data bases to check on the validity of homestead exemptions, medical records for certain exemptions, and inspections and lease analysis for agricultural exemptions.

Question:  What would you do to prevent abuse of the agriculture classification?

Bandi: Unfortunately, being zoned commercial or residential isn’t enough to deny agriculture. See Schultz vs. Love PGI partners. I do believe that some of the agriculture should be denied and go in front of the VAB where the public can see the merits in a public meeting. We do deny agriculture classifications annually.

Cates: The agriculture exemption is possibly the most abused exemption throughout the state. I would require all the necessary requirements listed on the “Application and Return For Agricultural Classification of Lands.” Each application would be reviewed each year. Agriculture exemptions on commercial and residential property would be investigated on a case-by-case basis. The applicant will have to prove there is agricultural use and income from the parcel

Duncan: Florida statutes require the use of seven factors in determining if a property qualifies for a bona-fide agricultural classification. The actual physical use of the property is the guidepost in classifying land. Law prohibits the property appraiser from denying agricultural classification solely based on property’s zoning. In order to curb abuses, I will conduct fraud investigations and be persistent in having these properties inspected.

Wallace: I will use the spatial analysis capabilities of GIS to review existing agricultural exemptions before approving any new requests or requests for renewal. I will require evidence from the taxpayer the land is actually being used for commercial agriculture. I will also require copies of any applicable lease information.

Willson: This may be why I might not win. The property appraiser’s office caters to the agricultural property owners. Although probably not popular with the agriculture folks that have spent over $30,000 on the other two candidates, I plan to personally visit the validity of every single agricultural exemption.

Question: Why are you the best candidate for the job of property appraiser?

Bandi: I have a unique, in-depth experience within the office of all departments unlike any other candidate. With this I will be able to start working day one, which is important since the tax roll calendar requires rolls to start being submitted within ninety days of taking office and audits following thereafter.

Cates: I am the best candidate for the job of property appraiser because I have the experience and qualifications to make sure all assessments are fair and equitable. I do not have and will not have any outside influence to control my decisions pertaining to property assessment and exemptions. I am the only candidate who is a veteran (Vietnam veteran) and the only candidate with experience in holding the office of property appraiser.

Duncan: Our next property appraiser must be diligent and exemplify integrity and honesty in all works. I am the candidate who most possesses those qualities and has the leadership ability and office knowledge to not only run but improve the office on day one. I am a lifelong resident of the community and believe that I can serve Okeechobee as property appraiser in a manner which its residents will respect.

Wallace: All newly elected property appraisers are required to complete International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) coursework. I have been taking those classes on my dime, not yours. I have a Bachelors Degree in Information Technology (IT), a professional certification in GIS (GISP), and am a Certified Application Trainer (CAT).

Willson: This office has been in control by the same person for 30 years. He trained the other two republican candidates, who are assessors. I am the only choice for change. I am a professional real estate appraiser. I am running not to save my job, but to move Okeechobee forward.


Okeechobee County Sheriff

Question:  Do you have a command staff in place should you be elected?

Michael Hazellief (NPA): I am considering individuals internally and externally for certain key command staff positions with a common goal: service and commitment. The most important of which is a CFO to ensure our budget is as efficient, effective, and transparent as possible. I also plan to adjust the organizational design to reduce our top-heavy hierarchy.

William “Bill” Markham (DEM):
I do not plan on changing any of the current staff. I worked with them when I was previously employed at the OCSO; however, there will be a probation and evaluation period for every employee.

Noel E. Stephen (REP): I will announce my Command Staff prior to the primary election. I feel this announcement will reflect my direction to the staff and who will represent the agency, in my absence, to our Community.

Darryl L. Stokes (REP): At this time, I don’t have a command staff in place. I’m in the process of carefully observing individuals to possibly be on my administrative team. This is a decision that I don’t take lightly. These individuals will share in my mission, vision, and goals and objectives of the sheriff’s office. I will make my final decision in the near future.

Question:  Will you keep the Narcotics Task Force?

Hazellief: I will fund this by participating in programs that allow revenues earned from drug asset seizures to flow back to the county, in addition to available grants. Some of these programs will decrease our need for local tax dollars, while expanding our ability to protect our citizens.

Markham: I worked on the Narcotics Task Force. It is a very beneficial unit in the fight against drugs in our community. I do have ideas on how to better utilize the manpower we currently employ.

Stephen: The Task Force is a requirement for Bryne Grant funding. At one time, it fully funded our entire Narcotics Operation but to date only funds ten percent. We hope that these dollars will continue and increase in time. These staffing levels need to increase and will do so under my administration.

Stokes: I have all intention in keeping the Narcotics Task Force; however as I have stated on prior occasions all areas of the sheriff’s office will be evaluated to make certain all facets of each specialized unit will benefit both the community and the sheriff’s office. If there are any changes it would be for the betterment of both.

Question:  What are your plans for keeping qualified and experienced deputies from leaving the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office?

Hazellief: Salary is a motivating factor which will have to be addressed to compete with neighboring agencies. I plan to utilize an evaluation system to provide a step program to keep salaries competitive. I believe career advancement and training opportunities are equally as motivating and will utilize them as a resource for retention.

Markham: Sheriff May has made a request for pay raises in this budget. I would like to also assure all employees that they will be treated equally and fairly.

Stephen: Salary and benefits need addressing. We all struggled through very tough economic times in the past few years. We are slowly coming out of those times and our dedicated employees need to be recognized for sticking with us.

Stokes: I will have an open line of communication with ALL staff while encouraging their input on job related issues. I want staff to realize that their input is important and will be heard. The promotional process will be conducted fairly and more training opportunities will be offered to expand the knowledge of every employee. This will open the door for more promotional opportunities.

Question:  In light of all that has happened lately, do you have plans for increasing security staff at the Okeechobee Judicial Complex?

Hazellief: This building is a potential target; however, our current personnel are qualified in keeping this facility secure. I would implement active shooter and other security related training and ensure other department personnel are familiar with the facility as events are taking place almost daily in our country.

Markham: Any request for additional security would require a credible threat level increase. The request would also have to be reviewed by the Clerk of Courts and 19th Judicial Circuit as well as a possible request to County Commissioners.

Stephen: We proudly maintained the security, at the Judicial Complex, with Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office personnel. This was accomplished with the complete support and proper funding from the Okeechobee County Board of County Commissioners. The level of staffing will be looked at and addressed by the incoming Command Staff.

Stokes: As stated in question #2, I will evaluate all areas. If it is determined that additional security is needed, arrangements will be made to rectify this issue. The safety for both the community and my staff will be priority.

Question:   Did you attend the 2016 Okeechobee Music Festival? If so, what did you think? Would you support the continuation of the festival? If not, would you reserve judgment on the festival until you have seen it for yourself?

Hazellief: I attended as an employee of the Sheriff’s office. Attendees were friendly, but I do have concerns that need to be addressed prior to fully endorsing: 1) residents near the festival site’s right to peace, which has not been fully addressed; 2) continued support of law enforcement needs by the promoters to ensure public safety, specifically narcotics.

Markham: I did not attend the Music Festival. I would support any event that brings revenue into the community, but I would also like to see what cost it put on the entire Sheriff’s office before making any judgment. Deputies were employed as off-duty officers, but my question would be if adequate reimbursement was made for such items as use of equipment.

Stephen: I coordinated the traffic and security with the assistance of Captain Bell. We discussed, researched and developed a plan to receive, maintain and exit 35,000 folks on a 500-acre parcel. This mild crowd caused little issues but one huge concern …. open marijuana use. That said … I support the OMF.

Stokes: No, I didn’t attend and yes, I will reserve judgment. However, with that being said ANY and ALL illegal activity (if any) will NOT be tolerated. There will be consequences for all infractions. No matter how great or how small. The decision to host said event is up to our BOCC.

Question:  In recent months, residents of the Viking property, also know as The Prairie, have reported problems with ATVs tearing up the road, gunfire near their homes, people leaving trash and litter along the roadways and on private property and dumping from RV tanks into canals. What steps would you take to solve these problems?

Hazellief: The first step is to have personnel patrolling this area consistently until it is under control. Education of the law and enforcement through fines, seizures, and incarceration, will deter many of these problems. I would start with patrol saturation and reduce personnel as the need subsided.

Markham: I lived in the Basinger area for 15 years, and I know that this problem has always existed. I would like to review the current complaints and meet with community to try and resolve the issues. I also want to assure that all laws will be enforced for all offenders.

Stephen: We have implemented enhanced enforcement and patrols to deal with the shooting and traffic on the roadways. I am in communication with Okeechobee County Code Enforcement and Department of Health to coordinate our efforts to further enforce existing statutes and ordinances to address the improper camping, littering and illegal dumping issues.

Stokes: Increase patrol in that area and strictly enforce state laws. I would also work side by side with FWC to take control of said issues. Violators will soon realize that these actions will NOT be tolerated and there will be consequences for their actions.

Question:  Do you agree with the views of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association in regard to the authority and responsibilities of a county sheriff?

Hazellief: Should the citizens of Okeechobee County entrust me to be the next sheriff, I will uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and the State of Florida. I agree the sheriff is the primary law enforcement authority in a county and has a duty to ensure that the rights and privileges of our citizens are not violated.

Markham: There is no answer in 50 words. There are too many hypothetical scenarios. I believe the office of sheriff exists to uphold all laws and protect life and property of all citizens of the community.

Stephen: Upon taking office I will swear to uphold the Constitution and the Laws of our State. As your sheriff I do swear to stand by those oaths and promises. If at some point I disagree and cannot carry out those oaths and/or promises, I will relinquish my position as sheriff.

Stokes: Yes, I do support the state and U.S. Constitution. Being elected to office is significant in the fact that I will be the first line of defense in preserving the constitutional rights of citizens. As your sheriff, I will stand as the upholder, defender, protector and servant to the liberties of the people within the county.


Okeechobee County Commissioner races

Question:  Would you support a proposal like that from Guy Harvey Outpost to sell the campground portion of Okee-Tantie? Explain.

DISTRICT 1
Phil Baughman (REP): If it became the only and last option, I might. I prefer the lease of the land, like it was first intended. The reason is simple. If for some reason the park failed and we didn’t own the land, whoever took possession might want to change the use. That would not be what I would want nor do I think it would be what the tax payers would want.

Mark Brandel (REP): Yes. Once the fair market appraisal is received, I am in favor of selling this portion. The property will be put out for bid, with well-defined restrictions of what we will allow to be developed there. This will bring jobs and add to our tax base.

David E. Hazellief (REP): First we must find out from the state of Florida if the restrictions can be removed to allow for the property to be sold without reservations, if so, what is the cost to the county and what is the property worth. I support the park being managed by a company with a proven track record that can promote Okeechobee and bring visitors here.

Michael Slayton (NPA): Yes, I support the sale of the camp portion of Okee-Tantie. The county will be able to collect tax revenue on that property.

Keith White (REP): Yes I would support that proposal. In my opinion capital investment and or value is a great asset for any local government. It can be a great impact for the budget.

DISTRICT 3
Brad Goodbread (REP): I would be open to listening to any proposals to increase the revenue to the county. A project such as the Guy Harvey Outpost Project could be implemented by either a sale of the land or a 99-year lease with reversion back to the county. The private sector is more efficient and knowledgeable when it comes to the sectors of the economy which this project entails which are Tourism, Development, Retail & Hospitality/Lodging. The sale of the property will put it back on the tax rolls.

Bobby (Robert) M. Keefe, Jr. (NPA): No, I would not. Okee-Tantie is not the county’s to sell. It belongs to the citizens of Okeechobee. If the proper leadership had been present back before the county closed down the park in 2012, the county would still have a functioning facility for all of us to enjoy.

Gail Powers (REP): The BOCC should evaluate all options that would be financially feasible for Okeechobee tax payers long term.

Debra Sales (REP): I definitely support the idea of Guy Harvey Resort coming into Okeechobee, but I do have valid concerns at the success of this deal. There is way more to this project than just selling the campground, and by far it would not be my first choice to sell the land, but if the numbers benefit the county I would go with it.

DISTRICT 5
Frank Cunningham (REP): I could support that if the price was right and the money might be used for some needed project that the county could not otherwise afford … drainage improvement perhaps …
Weston Harvey (DEM): Yes, I do support the proposal that has been accepted by the board. The current deal is a product of good negotiating.

Kelly Owens (REP): Yes. The sale of this property would allow Guy Harvey to sell RV sites adding to the county’s ad valorem tax base. That means more money coming into our county. Okeechobee will benefit from the revenues of the project and the sale of the sites.

Question:  Did you attend the 2016 Okeechobee Music Festival to see it first hand? If so, what was your impression of the event? Would you support the continuation of the festival? If you did not attend, would you reserve judgment on future festivals until you have had a chance to attend the 2017 festival?

DISTRICT 1

Baughman: I did not attend. I would reserve my opinion of the festival after attending the 2017 one.

Brandel: I did not attend the festival as I was out of town. I have heard almost nothing negative about the festival and much positive. I do know that Okeechobee is now known in the global market for the first time. I would support the festival with some further negotiations.

Hazellief: I did not go to the festival; however, I did visit the area every day to observe the traffic and management of the event. I also spoke with the emergency officials and many county residents, as well as visitors and the promoter to get an opinion from a cross-section of the community. The noise, and the drug use must be addressed as well as traffic control.

Slayton: No, I did not attend the Music Festival, however I would support the festival returning based on the information I now have. I would also be willing to hear both the pros and cons of the festival if given the opportunity.

White: I reserve judgment; did not attend.

DISTRICT 3

Goodbread: Although I didn’t attend the Okeechobee Music Fest, I drove by the site each day and was impressed at how professionally the event was produced and the evident forethought and planning for the ingress and egress of traffic along with the other aspects of the event. I would be in support of more of this type of event, with restrictions on the frequency in which they could be held. We need more “Out-Of-The-Box” type thinking and ideas in our county and trying to find new solutions to our issues.

Keefe: I did not attend this year. I believe that it can become a great annual attraction though. Understanding that there are some nearby residents that are opposed to it due to occurrences during this year’s event, moving forward there needs to be greater coordination and collaboration between host and neighbors.

Powers: I wasn’t able to attend. However, I heard the event went really well. Most of our residents were positive and said they wouldn’t mind if it was an annual event. Personally, I think we need to create more ways to entertain Okeechobee youth.

Sales: I did attend the Okeechobee Music Festival. I thought it was very organized and seemed to be very successful. I would support the continuation of the event. I think some changes need to be made to scheduling of some of the different musical talent so that the louder bass type music isn’t played really late at night and change the direction of stage setup so that speakers are not pointed in the direction of neighbors.

DISTRICT 5

Frank Cunningham (REP): No, I did not attend. I reserve judgment until 2017. Everything I hear about it is 95 percent plus positive.

Weston Harvey (DEM): I did not personally attend, but I did see many reviews and heard from sources first hand of its success. I will be a better judge of it next year, but I hope we can do more so that the local residents are not inconvenienced by the festival.

Kelly Owens (REP): I didn’t attend. Businesses in town have expressed the benefits of the event. Residents’ concerns brought before the commission are currently being addressed. As a commissioner, it will be my obligation to attend the next music festival in order to: (1) decide on its continuation, and (2) ensure concerns are appropriately handled.

Question:  Do you propose to increase the tax base in Okeechobee County in order to fund the services needed by county residents? If so, how?

DISTRICT 1

Baughman: I do not have any plans to increase the tax base. I believe better budget planning can accomplish taking care of the needs of our community. I do believe that those who use our services and are not contributing to the tax base of Okeechobee should be billed and pay for the services they use.

Brandel: The question doesn’t state what additional services are needed. Economic development increases our tax base. For example, this year so far our capital investment has increased by $16.5 million and created 160 jobs.  Continued focus on economic development will continue to help us in both these areas.

Hazellief: I support increasing the tax base of the community by growth and improvement of the economy. The assessed tax base is increasing this year, this can continue by bringing in more jobs and industry, supporting and increasing our code enforcement and bringing the building department online to provide better service to citizens, contractors and developers.

Slayton: No, I do not believe that increasing taxes in Okeechobee would be needed. I believe we as a board can come up with creative ways of encouraging growth, which in turn will create more revenue for the much needed improvements to the services we offer.

White: Yes, it is a consideration. Broadening the tax base consists of ending tax preference to raise revenue. I believe it will eliminate taxing churches. In affecting economic activities it will not serve justice for social reform.

DISTRICT 3

Goodbread: Absolutely. It is not government’s place to pick the winners and losers in the economy, only to create an environment for private businesses to succeed and grow. We are approximately a year away from having a four lane highway (State Road 70E) from I-95 and the Turnpike from the East Coast to Okeechobee as well as major improvements to State Road 710 to West Palm Beach, so our infrastructure and access to major population centers is improving, which is a major consideration of a business looking to expand or relocate to a new area.

Keefe: The county needs revenues to function. Increasing taxes is one way to fund the growing amount of services needed. I propose we create alternate revenue streams though.

Powers: Offer tax incentives that will entice businesses to Okeechobee county. Conduct an audit of every department. Talk to the employees regarding the waste and their needs. Then address them appropriately. Departments can then make budget decisions based on specifics needs.

Sales: By all means raising our tax base would not be my first choice for supplementing our county services. We have other sources of income for the county, and looking at the budget and possibly making mild restructuring in how some of our monies are spent first would be a better idea then just raising taxes.

DISTRICT 5

Cunningham: To create more tax base, something new has to come into the county that can be taxed … ala FPL power plant. Good growth. Something else might generate more demand for services than it pays for in taxes.
Harvey: Due to Okeechobee’s mostly low or fixed-income residents (retired, disabled) the last thing I would want to do is increase taxes for those living here. I would however be open to exploring increasing tax revenue from sources coming from out of the county.

Owens: It’s necessary to increase the tax base to fund essential county services while also providing tax relief to our property owners. This can happen through bringing new business into the community. We need to continue attracting businesses to set up shop in our empty buildings. Empty buildings don’t generate money.

Question:  Would you support a tax on utilities so that even those who are exempt from property taxes would still make some kind of contribution to the county tax base?

DISTRICT 1
Baughman: I would consider it as long as it is proven to me that it is necessary. I do not believe in taxing anything just because the law allows you to do so. There needs to be proven merit.

Brandel: We already tax utilities. This alludes to a franchise fee, and the city already has a franchise fee, so this would only apply to the county. Residents would hardly notice a difference in their bills, but our largest employers would actually be hurt, and may cost jobs.

Hazellief: A tax on utilities would not only tax the residents that are exempt from taxation but would also increase the taxes on the current tax payers. If we continue to increase our tax assessment value many of the properties that are exempt could qualify for paying some taxes.

Slayton: No, I would not support a tax on utilities. There are veterans and seniors that are on fixed incomes and could not pay a higher utility bill because we have taxed it. I believe that we cannot solve these problems with always raising or adding a new tax.

White: Yes everyone should pay taxes. I believe in all hands on deck. We all know what we can do on our own, but imagine what we can do together!

DISTRICT 3

Goodbread: Although I will approach all problems and solutions with an open mind, it would take a VERY strong argument to convince me to support any new tax or change in tax rate on our citizens or businesses. On this issue, I would start out as a NO VOTE, but would listen respectfully to any opinion.

Keefe: Franchise fees – although a useful tool to generate income – still does not ensure equitability of contributions to the county tax base. Those exempt from property taxes would minimally pay, but our agriculture and dairy businesses would really take a hit. I would like to create an equitable form of contribution.

Powers: Offer tax incentives that will entice businesses to Okeechobee county. Conduct an audit of every department. Talk to the employees regarding the waste and their needs. Then address them appropriately. Departments can then make budget decisions based on specifics needs.

Sales: I am not interested in imposing more taxes especially when it will directly impact our seniors. We have a large senior citizen community in Okeechobee that live off of social security and it takes every penny they have to live from month to month I certainly do not want to burden our senior citizens in that way.

DISTRICT 5

Cunningham: Not clear on this one. Is it a tax on the utility company or the user of the utilities?

Harvey: I would never ever want to increase or add a tax to anyone that is classified as disabled “paraplegic,” elderly low income etc.. whatsoever. I’m open to discuss other possibilities, but I would not condone taxing those who are already suffering.

Owens: No. The money generated from imposing additional franchise fees on utilities wouldn’t balance the negative impact it would have on: (1) our year-round residents who are scraping by paycheck to paycheck, as well as; (2) our year-round businesses and largest users of utilities who are providing jobs to local residents.

Question:  Many of our best and brightest young people have to leave the county to find work. How would you bring more jobs — good paying jobs that will actually support a family and provide benefits like health insurance — to Okeechobee County?

DISTRICT 1
Baughman: As a commissioner it will by my responsibility to set policy and create a positive attitude to our regulatory boards to want to reach the same goal. Working with economic groups and possible new business groups, using our next generation’s vision on our decision making boards, will accomplish this goal. It is time to think with our younger minds, because it is their futures. I say they need to be a part of how our county grows.

Brandel: It takes several things to attract business; a skilled work force, proper infrastructure to all areas, amenities, parks, restaurants, etc, and a properly funded economic development program. Our surrounding counties invest $40,000 or more into this. Usage of Enterprise Florida’s rural marketing program and videos outlining what we offer.

Hazellief: A portion of young people do leave our area in search of better jobs; that happens in every community. Many stay or return to Okeechobee to live and raise a family in an atmosphere the larger communities cannot provide.

Slayton: I agree that we need to bring “careers” to Okeechobee not just jobs. I would like to see us fill our industrial parks with manufacturing and bring in businesses that would create long-term employment.

White: Mindful collaboration is important for any local government to communicate with surrounding counties in regards of economic power, growth or development for the people of the communities, strong resources for important development with right investors and developers will make any community successful for the future.

DISTRICT 3
Goodbread: Okeechobee has a smaller “middle income” segment of our local economy by percentage than our coastal neighbors. I believe that it is not government’s place to pick the winners and losers in the economy, just to create an environment for business to prosper. There are several tools that the local government can use to lure outside business as well as promote growth of local business such as tax abatements, tax rates and quality of life investment like parks.

Keefe: This question implies that young people who choose not to leave Okeechobee are not the best and brightest. I disagree. Commissioners cannot “…bring more jobs…” despite their talents. We must develop our county collaboratively between all stakeholders, government agencies, and community organizations in order to improve our economy.

Powers: Offer tax incentives that will entice businesses to Okeechobee county. Conduct an audit of every department. Talk to the employees regarding the waste and their needs. Then address them appropriately. Departments can then make budget decisions based on specifics needs.

Sales: Our community needs to grow in a positive yet controlled way with that being said we need industry to come into our community. The county is in the process of redoing the buildout plan. My hopes are that if we get some definition of what we want and where we want things to go we will have more opportunities come available for industry to come in and offer employment opportunities for our youth.

DISTRICT 5
Cunningham: Everyone who walks off the stage with a highschool diploma cannot expect to find a good paying job open and waiting. The role of the county gov’t is to manage steady “quality” growth so those who have acquired the education and qualifications needed may be able to stay (or return) if they want. The best and the brightest will figure it out.

Harvey: We would have to ensure that the county projects an infrastructure that is capable of more industry. We can also help incoming industry by ensuring the prospective industry of strong and alluring tax abatements. Lastly we can start looking into getting HUB’s zones “Historically Underutilized Business” for the county.

Owens: The medical and technological industries are ideal to provide careers and sustainable growth. Okeechobee can be a marketable place for any of these industries. Grant initiatives can be helpful. As your commissioner, I will enlist every network I’ve already built within this state to bring careers to Okeechobee.

Question:  Would you propose any cuts to the county budget to help reduce the tax burden on homeowners? Be as specific as you can.

DISTRICT 1
Baughman: If it is viable and can be done, absolutely. I can’t be more specific until I am a commissioner, so I can be privy to all the information that I am not privy to now. It is hard to find all the facts necessary to make a good decision. Once I am elected, I know I can get more information.

Brandel: You can only cut so far and maintain the services taxpayers expect. A reduction of one mil would represent a reduction of $1.58 million dollars in expenses. Doing this, would force reductions in services or headcount, which is not always best.  Careful budget analysis will keep expenses in line.

Hazellief: I feel we can further consolidate some of the county departments thereby reducing the number of support staff. This does not mean anyone would lose their job; they could transition to other positions as job vacancies become available. When I was previously a commissioner, we reduced the assessment over the eight-year period.

Slayton: Any budget should be reviewed annually. Saving money, reallocating funds and doing what is in the best interest of the county should always be the focus. A major focus for our county is reallocating money to improve our Law Enforcement, EMS, and Fire Department Budgets.
White: It will not fix any issues. I believe it creates more problems with less money to work with in the budget.

DISTRICT 3
Goodbread: I have looked at our budget and I have to give credit to our present members of our Board of County Commissioners, they have worked hard at trimming the waste from our budget, but it should always be evaluated for waste and inefficiency.

Keefe: Budget cuts – no. Budget realignment – yes. There is money that can be freed up to fund the growing services needed by county residents. In fact, I intend to take a reduced salary in order to fund other county needed improvements. But we cannot reduce any more what is already minimal.

Powers: Offer tax incentives that will entice businesses to Okeechobee county. Conduct an audit of every department. Talk to the employees regarding the waste and their needs. Then address them appropriately. Departments can then make budget decisions based on specifics needs.

Sales: No tax cuts immediately. I believe our current commission looks very hard at this every year and makes the best possible decisions they can. I would encourage our county to get our empty buildings leased out to generate revenue which in turn should help ease the tax burden on homeowners and generate revenue.

DISTRICT 5
Cunningham: A county commission candidate cannot answer this question unless they have been a part of the budget creation process and understand the real needs versus resources for that particular year.

Harvey: The millage rate in Okeechobee is on par with the other Florida county rates. Any cuts to millage would help homeowners so little and hurt the county much more. I would rather target low income or struggling home owners and help them with the budget we have.

Owens: The best choice to alleviate the tax burden to our homeowners is to increase the tax base – rather than imposing new taxes or budget cuts. Budget cuts typically mean loss of services to the county residents. The budget focus should be on maintaining a healthy reserve balance for unexpected needs.

Question:  Churches are exempt from most property taxes, but pay a fire tax. Should churches also be levied a tax to pay EMS services? Why or why not?

DISTRICT 1
Baughman: Some churches can, but many others cannot afford a tax burden. A church should not be taxed to the point it cannot afford to exist. In my opinion, churches should not pay taxes. Churches exist only because of the members will for it to exist. Most local church members already pay taxes for city and county services. I do not believe in taxing twice.

Brandel: Rates as set now accommodate our service. I would not be in favor of this.
Hazellief: The churches are exempt as determined by the founding fathers of the state of Florida; I see no need to increase their expenses.

Slayton: No, I do not believe a church should pay taxes for EMS services. I agree with them paying a fire tax because the property will benefit.

White: NO! Even so the cost of living has not increased and seldom is there a provision for reduction for deflation! Further, more income is widely proceeded to be fair based on which to levy a tax from! Also from my understanding there is substantial administrative challenges progressing such a reform!

DISTRICT 3
Goodbread: I vow to look at any issue that comes before the Board of County Commission with an open mind, but I would be inherently against any new taxes on churches. Theoretically, the members of the church already pay their share of these taxes through their private property taxes on their homes and businesses.

Keefe: Churches provide services that the government cannot, and the trade-off is tax exemptions. Minimal time church is used doesn’t equal EMS tax. What should be required is a greater collaboration of all the churches in the county to improve our community as a whole rather than just their own denominations.

Powers: The congregation of the churches already pay said taxes.

Sales: I would like to investigate how many EMS calls are received from churches before I agree to impose a tax.

DISTRICT 5

Cunningham: No! The people who go to the church are already paying.

Harvey: A church is not a building, but a group of parishioners; all of which pay these taxes. Adding a tax to churches would be redundant and tax redundancies are a sign of inefficient government.

Owens: I’m not in favor an EMS tax on churches. Our churches routinely give back to our community. Local churches assist the county in providing services to the needy, the elderly, and our children. The level of service our churches provide far outweighs the perceived benefit of an imposed tax.


Okeechobee County School Board

Question:  Okeechobee County’s teen pregnancy rate is among the highest in the state. Would you support a change in the sex education program in the public schools to try to reduce the teen pregnancy rate?

Linda Baker: As a mother and teacher, I would support a change to a Abstinence Plus Education curriculum; which will help reduce the teen pregnancy rate by including information in the context of abstinence messages. I would strongly encourage and provide resources to parents to start the conversation about sex education at home with their children. Parents should be their children’s first teachers, and I would advocate and implement family workshops.

Amanda Fuchswanz: While I believe that abstinence is the best policy, we have a long standing problem of teen pregnancy as well as repeat teen pregnancy in Okeechobee County. Therefore, I would be open to exploring any and all options that would address this issue. Through Healthy Start I have presented workshops to teen parents and would look forward to continuing to work with them in finding potential solutions to this issue.

Levi Johnson: The reality is students are going to engage in sexual activities; statistically we’re number four in the state for teenage pregnancy. I support sex education that teaches safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and encourages abstinence before marriage. We need to let the students know that birth control is free at the local health department.

Mindy Schoppmeyer: Yes and No. I feel children should be educated appropriately from an early age about human development. Relationships, decision making and abstinence. Research has shown that a Comprehensive Sex Educational program in schools can and has reduced teen pregnancy as much as 50 percent.

Question:  Drugs are a continuing problem in the schools. Even middle school students have been caught with drugs at school. What would you propose to get and keep the drugs out of the school system?

Baker: As an experienced educator, I would take a proactive approach of preventing drugs entering the schools by implementing drug prevention programs, similar to the D.A. R. E. program. These programs will provide adequate education and bring awareness around drug use among students. The program will change student’s social norms about accepting and engaging in drug use.

Fuchswanz: I believe that we should continue to partner with law enforcement and collaborate with other agencies that address the dangers of drug use with students. It may be beneficial to increase monitors within the school and add video surveillance to campuses to ensure the safety of our students.

Johnson: The school district needs to reinforce Drug Abuse Resistance Education to curb the drug usages. Furthermore, I support previous ideas of undercover police investigations and random drug testing. We must put a stop to drugs at schools.

Schoppmeyer: Illegal drugs have always been a problem in the schools. I believe adding a mentoring program would help immensely, Kids turn to drugs for many reasons, depression, low self esteem, stress, family problems, etc. Speaking with a positive roll model outside of family would help to get another perspective on his/her life.

Question:  Okeechobee High School classes start very early at 7 a.m. This means some students who ride the bus to school have to be at the bus stop at 6 a.m. Some students who participate in sports and other programs have to be there even earlier. Yet studies have shown that teenagers’ brains do not function well early in the morning and they would do better academically if school started around 9 a.m. Would you support a change in school hours to start high school later?

Baker: Seven o’clock school start time may seem early but for those participating in extracurricular activities this means that after school practices are later. Students would get out of school early missing classes in order to participate in out of town sports activities. If there is a way for a later start time that would not cause later practices, I would be glad to support that. Also, a later school start time would cause schedule conflicts for working parents.

Fuchswanz: Initially this may seem like an obvious answer but there are many things to consider. First, the start times are staggered at schools to allow for bus accommodations. Secondly, sporting events often begin in the afternoon meaning our athletes would have to leave at a time where they would miss almost a half a day of academics. Finally, many high school students have after school jobs that would be affected by a later dismissal.

Johnson: This is a tough answer because of the logistics of rearranging the school hours of the high school will affect all the other school hours. I would support the change of time if there is enough support from the parents, teachers, and staff.

Schoppmeyer: Yes, I would agree with a change in school hours, studies have shown that teens preform much better on tests with more sleep. Also I believe they have to much free time after school.

Question:  Would you support more vocational programs at the high school where students could learn marketable skills? If so, which programs would you suggest? If not, why not?

Baker: I would support more vocational programs because we live in a time where our students need to be college and work ready upon high school graduation. Technology has changed the way we need to educate our children, the number of innovative 18-24 month training programs today mean that some students can earn a better education than those with four year degrees.

Fuchswanz: Any chance for our district to improve and offer more opportunities is welcomed. Okeechobee County currently offers 9 vocational programs. Some possible options could include culinary arts or heating and ventilation. It would be of great value for the school system to partner with local businesses who can provide internships and possible jobs upon graduation to ensure that we are creating programs that teach skills that are needed in our community.

Johnson: I am an “advocate for vocational training.” Currently the number one skilled career lacking in Okeechobee are welders. I would like to offer an in-depth welding technology certificate beyond the basic welding offered in the agriculture course.

Schoppmeyer: Yes. I think the vocational programs offered are limited and that our students deserve a more diverse selection to choose from.

Question:  Since the state has turned down Okeechobee’s request for funding to build a new high school, what do you suggest the school system do about the problems with the aging buildings at OHS?

Baker: If we can apply for the funds, I would suggest that we hire a consultant to help us navigate the system. I would also get our local and state elected officials to the lobby the legislature for the building funds.

Fuchswanz: Safety should be the first priority. We need to fix any issue that creates a safety hazard for our students and then make a plan to properly maintain our buildings in the most cost-effective way possible. We also need to continue to seek funding sources that could help support our need for a new school in the future.

Johnson: Even though the state denied our request, the school board has an obligation to the teachers, students, and staff to provide well-maintained facilities. I recommend the School Board adequately repair the school and request funding from the state each and every year.

Schoppmeyer: At the June 14 School Board meeting, Mr. Barren presented a powerpoint presentation which outlined the issues and what repairs are being done. I feel the maintenance dept is doing a great job of holding the school together. Let’s continue to provide repairs and pursue the state for funding .

Question:  Florida requires high school students take two years of a foreign language. OHS currently only offers Spanish. Since a large number of the students already speak Spanish, do you think the school should offer another language option?

Baker: Although, there is a large percentage of our students that are Spanish speaking students, many of them need to learn how to speak and write Spanish properly. I would like to have more ESOL certified teachers in the district’s classrooms. China’s emergence as a world leader would foster a need for adding Mandarin to our foreign languages.

Fuchswanz: Foreign language credits are often a requirement for scholarships and colleges but not for graduation. Students have the option to fulfill foreign language credits through virtual school if they want to pursue a language other than Spanish. In order for Okeechobee High School to offer another language option on campus it would cost another salary that may possibly be spent in other areas.

Johnson: Okeechobee High School currently has three Spanish teachers. I have no problem recommending and supporting an additional language such as Latin or French to meet the needs of students who are already know Spanish.

Schoppmeyer: Yes, we should definitely offer other foreign language choices for our students. I personally took French in high school, we also had German, Spanish and Latin.

Question:  Would you support a program of free school breakfast and lunch for all students? Why or why not? If yes, how would you fund it?

Baker: Breakfast is an important meal and many say it is the most important. I would like to see all students have breakfast, funding it through federal, state and local grants. As a grant writer, I would search for additional funding and resources.

Fuchswanz: Okeechobee County students are all entitled to free breakfast regardless of income already. I would not support a free lunch program for all children because our students in need are already receiving a free or reduced lunch and in order to provide a free lunch to all students we would need to pull funds from another area.

Johnson: Okeechobee County is an economically depressed county with 70-90 percent of students on free or reduced lunch. I was that student that went to school hungry. I will support a program that ensures each and every student receives breakfast and lunch at any cost; it will have to come out of the ‘Federal Food Service Fund.’

Schoppmeyer: Yes. Kids who eat breakfast and lunch regularly perform better academically and have increased attendance. As for funding, we would need to research further but it could be done on a federal level. Although I believe it is primarily the parent’s responsibility, no child should go hungry in our public schools.

2016 Okeechobee County races (biographies for each candidate)

Meet the candidates for Okeechobee County Commission: District 1

Meet the candidates for Okeechobee County Commission: District 3

Meet the candidates for Okeechobee County Commission: District 5

Meet the Okeechobee County property appraiser candidates

Meet the candidates for Okeechobee County Sheriff

Meet the candidates for School Board

 

The Lake Okeechobee News is published every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and now includes news from around the lake every Wednesday.

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