By DOTTY NIST
Topics of discussion included property taxes, the economy, economic development, and land use at the July 31 candidate forum sponsored by the Walton Republican Women Federated (WRWF). The forum provided voters with an opportunity to compare candidates for Walton County sheriff, county commission, school board, and other local offices.
Republican and nonpartisan candidates were invited to participate in the forum. Democratic candidates were not invited, but all county commission candidates are Republican this year, and only one Democrat, Danny Griffith, has qualified in the sheriff’s race. The sheriff’s portion of the July 31 forum is covered in a separate article by Alicia Leonard.
The District 3 and District 5 seats on the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) are up for election this year, and voters of all parties will have the opportunity to choose from candidates for those seats in a Universal Primary Contest on August 26. Early voting is also possible beginning on Aug. 11.
Current District 3 Commissioner Larry Jones is running for re-election after serving for eight years in his position. Johnny Smith of DeFuniak Springs is also running for the District 3 commission seat Current District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows has chosen not to seek re-election, and five candidates are vying for the District 5 seat. They include Sid Braunstien, Bob Hudson, Cecilia Jones, Alan Osborne, and George Wallace Smith. All were present at the July 31 forum except for Cecilia Jones.
Questions for the candidates posed by the public were chosen at random.
During a discussion on how to help homeowners in view of current economic and tax conditions, Larry Jones was proud to point out that $10 million had been cut from the BCC portion of the county budget over the past two years, resulting in only two counties in the state having a lower ad valorem tax rate than Walton County for the 2008-09 fiscal year.
Hudson observed that property values in Walton County have dropped, most prominently south of the bay, and may decline an additional eight percent next year. He favored finding ways to reduce the tax burden on homeowners while protecting natural resources, expanding recreational opportunities and setting other priorities for local government spending.
Osborne was in favor of expanding “economic diversification” to get additional money coming in to fund government without raising taxes.
Braunstien strongly advocated bringing new businesses into the county and said he would “do almost anything” to solicit these businesses. He said he would not support either raising or lowering taxes.
George Wallace Smith and Johnny Smith both favored looking at the county budget more closely to see if some additional “fat” could be eliminated.
In discussing how conditions attached to development projects should be enforced, Jones explained that the county has development order inspectors charged with making sure conditions are met.
The strongest statement on the topic came from Osborne, who said, “It’s personal for me.”
As a spokesman for Greater Driftwood Estates homeowners, he has been a strong advocate of developers of new phases in the subdivision being held to development order conditions, including completion of stormwater infrastructure.
Osborne was adamant that taxpayers must not foot the bill for developers not completing infrastructure or amenities that were part of a development order. If not complete, these items must be bonded by developers, and if not, “you don’t do business in Walton County,” Osborne concluded.
Hudson praised the employees of the county but observed that the county was “ill-prepared” to deal with the massive flow of development that took place in recent years. He favored developments being held “to the letter” of requirements set in the Walton County Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code.
“I truly believe in economic development,” Braunstien said as the candidates weighed in on the topic. He called for partnerships on the community, local and state level to bring more businesses into the county.
George Wallace Smith favored addressing a lack of infrastructure in the local area first.
“Our infrastructure is not ready,” agreed Johnny Smith. He called for “some fast-track plan” to do that.
Osborne called for taking advantage of opportunities such as those associated with low-cost rail transportation and with the new Bay County International Airport. He spoke to the need to attract not just any businesses but quality businesses in harmony with the local area.
“We are absolutely ripe for economic development,” Hudson proclaimed. Hudson also spoke to the need to “incentivize” existing businesses to expand.
Jones commented that economic development must be accompanied by an emphasis on quality of life and attention to locations where businesses are to be located.
He noted that Walton County has good schools and recreational facilities that will attract new businesses, along with a county-owned industrial park in Mossy Head that will soon be ready to accommodate businesses. The existing tourism industry should not be ignored as the county seeks to attract other types of businesses, he added.
Attendees heard briefly from candidates for other offices.
Present were: Zuma Banks and Candice Kaushagen, candidates for the office of Republican state committeewoman; Randy Henning, candidate for Republican Precinct 16 committeeman; and Lee Perry, candidate for Republican Precinct 15 committeeman.
Jack Behr, public defender for the First Judicial Circuit, is retiring after more than three decades in that position, and two Republican candidates are competing for voters’ support to take the job.
Kelly Merritt Richards of Pensacola told attendees that her over 24 years working in the public defender’s office would allow her to make a smooth transition. She pledged to work hard to resolve cases quickly while protecting clients’ rights.
James Owens of Milton, her Republican opponent, said he would draw on his 18 years’ knowledge as owner/manager of a law firm and as a prosecutor to provide “responsible leadership” in the position and to improve quality and standards in representation of clients. The Republican public defender candidate who is victorious in the primary election will face Democratic candidate Tony Henderson in the 2008 general election.
Carlene Anderson, current school superintendent, expressed pride in the Walton County School District’s recent designation as one of 11 high-performance school districts in the state, based on student achievement, class-size reduction and fiscal management. “There is much more to be done,” Anderson told the attendees and asked for their support to continue her leadership “to get it done.”
Trisha Porter Hutchison, a teacher at Maude Saunders Elementary School and a candidate for school superintendent, told attendees, “I think you should vote for me because I care. I care about our students and their education.”
Hutchison added, “I am a team player. I would like to come up with better solutions for our children.”
Also on hand were three candidates for Walton County School Board, District 1, Robert Nelson, Tim Yandell, and Mildred Wilkerson, along with School Board District 4 candidates Mark Davis and Marsha Winegarner.
The superintendent of schools position will be decided in the Universal Primary Contest, and the school board positions are nonpartisan, to be voted on by all voters regardless of party affiliation in the upcoming primary.
Additional candidate forums are scheduled for this week. Another Republican candidate forum will take place at 6 p.m. on Aug. 7 at the Rosemary Beach Town Hall, and a candidate forum is set for 3 p.m. on August 9 at the Red Bay Community Center.