By LEAH STRATMANN
The candidate forum and luncheon sponsored by the Walton County Chamber of Commerce drew more than 200 people to the Sandestin Hilton last week. On hand to answer a few questions, primarily aimed at business needs, were several candidates for the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC). The candidates in attendance were Johnny Smith, Cecilia Jones, Larry Jones, Sid Braunstien, Bob Hudson and Alan Osborne. Smith is challenging sitting commissioner Larry Jones in District 3, while all the other candidates seek the District 5 seat currently held by Cindy Meadows.
The first question leveled at commissioner Larry Jones, concerned the widening of U.S. 331, a long time goal of the BCC. Jones said, “We [the commissioners] have been to Washington, D.C. several times and they are very aware of the need to widen 331. We are proud the design is completed and has been approved, but there is no money.” Jones indicated all the commission can do is keep up awareness in Washington and the state and hope the money follows.
Candidate Smith was asked what action he would take to deal with the slowing local economy. “Sooner or later there will be local layoffs. The county needs to be reorganized to save money,” he said.
Braunstien also responded to the same question saying the county needs to take the necessary steps to ensure there is a well-prepared workforce. “Proper training and measured training is needed,” he said.
Signage along CR-30A has been an issue of late and candidate Osborne was asked how he would help small businesses cope with the sign ordinances. “The sign ordinance is a good thing and small business signs are somewhat grandfathered into the guidelines and regulations. These regulations and ordinances are on the books and we need to enforce them,” he said. Osborne also indicated some compromises could be worked out to help new small businesses so that consumers can find their way to these business establishments.
Cecilia Jones was asked if the $2 million dollars earmarked for animal control was a sensible use of money in a year when county coffers are going to be taking in less money. Jones said, “There is $157 million in the current budget and there are reserves built into that. Animal control is very important and right now we have the money. However, I think the budget should be continually looked at and prioritized.”
Candidate Hudson remarked the county has earmarked less than $500,000 for economic development, which he feels is inadequate. “We need jobs to keep young people in the county.”
The topic of ordinances was raised again and again, including one of the newer ones concerning items left on the beach.
Cecilia Jones said, “We need to be reasonable with our ordinances and ordinances are needed because people won’t self-regulate. We need to get back to common sense.”
Candidate Hudson said, “We need to create a climate for business and ordinances in the county are not equally enforced. We need an immediate review of all county ordinances,” he declared.
Osborne said in a word the ordinance about taking items off the beach was good. “However, we need to compromise somewhat with private business, but the bottom line is to leave the beach as you found it. Personal property rights do not give you the right to infringe on the rights of others,” he opined.
A member of the audience queried the group asking how new businesses can promote business under the current restrictive sign ordinance, saying businesses which cannot advertise will not thrive and therefore not be able to pay taxes to the county.
Braunstien said he believed small businesses were the future of Walton County. “The Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Development Board should work with small businesses. We cannot ignore the codes on the books, but we can amend them,” he stated.
Osborne more or less agreed saying, “There has to be a balance and we have to come to compromises that are good for everybody.”
All of the candidates were given a few minutes to describe why they felt they were best suited to the positions they seek.
Larry Jones said he felt his eight years on the commission, plus his education and experience equipped him to run government efficiently. He indicated that during his tenure he has listened to the citizens, helped to put emergency first-responders closer to every citizen in the county, as well as improved roads and recreation for Walton County citizens.
Cecilia Jones, a former educator, said she has lived in Seagrove since there was only one gas station. “I have seen the tremendous change that growth brings and the pain of that growth. I want us to keep our uniqueness. I know how to collaborate.”
Braunstien said flatly, “I will not take a reactive stand. We must look to the future, it is the only course. There are ways and means of doing everything and one of the things we must do is expand our economic base beyond tourism.”
Hudson said he thought Walton County would be redistricted within the next few years. “I believe I’m a person of vision. We chose Walton County and I think I listen to people, but I am not afraid to take on anybody.” Hudson also said he thought Walton County would need to reduce the budget by some $5 million in the future and the county would have to learn how to do more with less. “We must come up with innovative ways to attract new business,” he said.
“I don’t owe anybody anything. I don’t need a job or the benefits. I want to give the citizens of Walton County 100 percent of my time,” said Osbourne.
Smith said he originally intended to try and knock on the door of every citizen in Walton County and quickly realized it would be impossible. He said he wondered if the millage rate would be reduced in 2009 to reflect the changes in property values. “If the tax value has dropped, rates should go down,” he said to scattered applause.