Realtor Herb Whitaker, a Republican, is a candidate for the Flagler County Commission in the Nov. 6 election, facing five-term incumbent Democrat George Hanns.
Three commission seats were up this year. In August, Charlie Ericksen defeated incumbent Alan Peterson in the District 1 race. County Commissioner Milissa Holland had two years to go in her term, but she elected to resign on Nov. 6 and run for the newly drawn Florida House seat that, for the first time in two generations, includes all of Flagler County. That opened up the District 2 seat, which is being contested by Independent Abby Romaine and Republican Frank Meeker, who is resigning his seat on the Palm Coast City Council.
Whitaker and Hanns faced off four years ago, with Hanns winning by four points.
In both races, all registered Flagler County voters may cast a ballot, whatever their party, whatever their address: Commissioners represent specific districts, but they are elected by all Flagler County voters, including every city’s voters.
A county commissioner is paid $48,061 a year. The salary is set by state law, based on county population, but paid out of local dollars.
FlaglerLive submitted 14 identical questions to all four commission candidates, who replied in writing, with the understanding that some follow-up questions may be asked, and that all exchanges would be on the record. Each candidate was also given the opportunity to ask his or her opponent three questions, which appear following the FlaglerLive questions. Follow-up questions, when necessary, appear in italics, and may be awaiting answers.
The Questions in Summary: Quick Links
- What qualifies you to run?
- Impact fees
- The county jail
- Residential development and the economy
- The county’s economic development council
- Beach renourishment
- Amendment 4’s revenue cut
- Environmentally Sensitive Lands program
- Domestic partnership registry
- County Administrator Craig Coffey
- Evaluating the County Commission
- Who’s your model commissioner?
- Your temperament
- Opponent’s questions
Place and Date of Birth: 1943.
Current job: Realtor.
Party Affiliation: Republican.
I am the most qualified candidate for the District 5 commissioner seat because:
A. I am a college graduate from Daytona State College with an Associate of Arts Degree.
B. I am a graduate of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University with a Bachelor of Science in Aviation Business Administration, with an emphasis on Accounting, Ethics and Management Leadership.
C. I am currently enrolled in graduate school at Embry Riddle in the Master of Leadership curriculum.
D. The most pressing issues of a county commissioner are the abilities to analyze the budget to best steward the tax money from the county’s residents and the ability to lead the employees of the county from a position of respect and ethical correctness.
A college education, like other intellectual abilities, is not in and of itself necessarily an indicator of qualifications to be a local government representative. What, in your background, qualifies you to analyze budgets and write and oversee public policy? And how does a commissioner’s job as you see it have anything to do with leading county employees, when that is the responsibility of the county administrator, specifically excluding commissioners from administrative leadership?
A college degree is an example of dedication, perseverance, intellect, ability to speak proper English and to pass English courses, ability to write theme papers and weekly papers without any help, especially no lawyer. Accounting 101 and 102, Accounting 201 and 202, Cost accounting, Managerial accounting and Financial accounting, courses which include the analysis and preparation of budgets. Forty years of experience in companies requiring budget preparation and adherence to them. Full charge management which includes sales management in a couple of the facilities which involves public contact. The county commission is the policy setting entity of the county. Leadership begins at the top and trickles down, not the reverse. It may seem to you that the administrator is the leader of this county because of the lack of top down leadership. Without solid managers you will have an inferior operation.
2. Would you have supported the county’s impact fee moratorium? If so, what is your evidence that such a moratorium can create a substantial number of jobs, and how do you explain to those who have paid impact fees that current builders and home-buyers won’t have to?
This issue when taken in the current economic environment and with the current and long lasting efforts by the county commission to increase job opportunities and attract new businesses to our community, is one more of perception than practicality. The perception of removing the impact fees is that you, as a county government, are willing to be conciliatory on the removal of fees necessary for new construction, houses and commercial to attract growth. As Commissioner McLaughlin phrased it as a perception of, “Open for business” and willing to remove a portion of the impact fees from the new construction permitting costs. The practical aspect is that, in this environment I don’t feel this reduction will generate much if any additional construction. The one issue I have with this reduction is that I want the conciliation to be passed to the buyer of the residence and not used as additional profits for the builder/developer. I believe an acknowledgement from the builder to this effect should be necessary.
The explanation of this removal is similar to a person who purchases a new car and six months later the same vehicle is advertised by the dealer at a $1,000 lower price. Best business practices do not necessarily always react without change. The same question could be asked of that person who bought a house from a builder in January for a set amount, and three months later the price is increased by an additional amount. Is that equity for the new purchaser?
What would the county commission’s role be in securing such an “acknowledgement” from the builder, and is it administratively or legally feasible?
An acknowledgement from the Home Builders Association who were the main advocates for this as well as the builder/developers who spoke requesting this reduction could have been obtained and a line item on the closing HUD statement acknowledging that the buyer is receiving this benefit.
The jail over-crowding situation is not a new matter and has been languishing for at least the last 10 years. I spoke with a former county commissioner who said this over-crowding issue was a campaign issue during his political campaign in 2004 and Sheriff candidates spoke about it as being an issue for more than 10 years. Your question is do we need a larger jail and the answer is multiple.
A. The situation of over-crowding has to be addressed and corrected. It is best that the county take responsibility for this correction before mandated with constraints by the State to do so. The obvious first answer is to expand the existing jail rather than a completely new brick and mortar structure, but there are alternatives. I recently presented a product to the BOCC, a product named Sprung Stuctures which are Florida Model Jail Standards certified and are in use by five counties in Florida today. These are typically used as minimum security facilities, but youth and misdemeanants who do not pose flight risks can be incarcerated in them, separately not together. This would alleviate the immediate need for expansion and would save the county residents millions of dollars in construction costs. Before I would recommend this type product, I would want the Sheriff elected in November to approve of this type structure and if he does not then I would withdraw the suggestion.
B. The real correction to the problem with the current jail size may very well be the addition of another judge which has been approved for Flagler County. I have spoken to people who are researching this matter now to see why we do not have this judge, when it is anticipated we may have this judge, and confirming that we are in line for this judge. The results are incomplete as of today. According to Judge Sharon Atack, there is adequate court space available at the current facility without any costs for expansion needed.
How is an additional judge going to affect needs at the jail? In other words, how is the addition of a judge going to materially affect the number of people who do or do not end up in jail? Let’s also ask you what we asked Hanns: Aside from anecdotal and verbal declarations at public meetings by various officials, what hard, documented, objective and written evidence have you seen that confirms what you’ve heard about the need for a jail–evidence that could, for example, be shared with the public without having to rely on anecdotal testimonies?
Adjudication of the lesser offenders and getting them out of the facility sooner reduces the over crowding. It will not affect the number of people who do or do not end up in jail, that is the responsibility of law enforcement, it will get them out sooner. Read the FCSO website statistics daily, monthly or yearly and you will see the documented proof of overcrowding.
Residential construction will be a major factor in the future development of Flagler County and municipalities generated by the continuing desire of the American people to live in warmer climates with proximity to the ocean. According to a study by Negative Population Growth’s website, the State of Florida will “increase by 5.5 million by 2025 and will have doubled by 2050, when its population could surpass 32 million – or twice the 15,982,378 in the 2000 census.” There simply are not enough existing homes to accommodate this many new residents so residential construction is needed. Tourism is important to all of Florida, including Flagler County and the beach issue has to be finalized between the agencies involved and the county will be one of the participants in this effort. People come to Flagler County to visit Princess Place, the Agriculture Museum and the state parks, but many more come to enjoy the beach and ocean.
5. The county has been talking about economic development since the bursting of the housing bubble, and in 2011 established its own jobs council. Those efforts have yet to bear fruit. Evaluate the jobs council’s performance. What measurable outcome would point to a successful economic development effort, and what do you intend to do, as commissioner, to get to that outcome?
The county has been talking about economic development since long before the housing bubble burst and yet the unemployment rate has led the state too many times. I originally came to Palm Coast in 1986 and my wife worked for ITT in the program to match employees up with employer requests to promote more development. In stating “jobs council,” I assume you referring to the Economic Opportunity Advisory Council and will address my responses accordingly. The EOAC’s job is not a quick response, quick recovery type of position and any perception that they are not laying the groundwork for a good conclusion, is premature. I believe that their efforts, so far, have been successful and that the base is set. With an employment rate currently at more than 11 percent, all efforts to its improvement is welcome.
Please be more specific about the council’s “successful” efforts: aside from appointing a director, who is leading a department, what has the council itself achieved that you know of?
Several small IT companies have relocated or begun business in our community. There have been no big hits, but there have been no big hits in many years.
6. To what extent would you support paying for beach renourishment with county tax dollars, in Flagler Beach and elsewhere along the Flagler coast, if that’s what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommends?
There are a couple of issues to consider here that must be developed. What is the constant cause of the need for renourishment, will the Corps of Engineers be able to determine and correct the problem? How many times has renourishment been accomplished and what will be the results of another such attempt. First off I want to say that the beaches have been important to me all of my life, having grown up in this area and enjoying the recreation it offers, I am an advocate of saving our beaches, but I am also an advocate of proper stewardship of the county resident taxes. Sea turtle nesting and the impacts of doing renourishment or not doing it is an important factor in this decision. Will the Holmberg theory provide a solution? More study will tell. Before a proper answer to your question is given, the recommendations of the Corps of Engineers must be received with their best analysis of a permanent solution and costs associated spelled out.
7. Amendment 4 is the proposed constitutional amendment that would expand the homestead exemption to first-time home-buyers and cut in half (to 5 percent) the limit at which non-homesteaded properties may be assessed every year. The Florida League of Cities opposes the amendment, saying it will further reduce local governments’ ability to raise revenue. Where do you stand on Amendment 4?
Not only does the Florida League of Cities, but also in a presentation given before the county commission by the Florida Association of Counties, this amendment is opposed by both. The provision of first-time home-buyers is troubling to me because of its definition. The basic requirement is that anyone who has not owned their residence for the previous three years qualify for this designation and under new Fannie Mae guidelines anyone who has suffered a foreclosure more than three years previously can also qualify for a mortgage loan. I join the FLC and FAC and oppose the amendment.
8. “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said. Do you agree? Do you consider local government taxes to be too high or too little? If there was one tax reform you could implement locally, what would it be?
Whether taxes are too high or too low is relative. Take the people who have relocated here from the Northeast. To them the tax rate here is a blessing, but to those who move from comparative communities, the taxes are not so. According to County Administrator Coffey, Flagler County is the 44th, 45th or in that range of counties, as the lowest tax rates.
But according to you: are taxes too low, too high or just right? And understanding that it’s mostly Tallahassee’s responsibility, what tax mechanism would you reform most?
Taxes here have increased versus the value of our homes for at least 6 years. Services continue to be needed by the elderly and less affluent of our citizens. I am not happy about my taxes increasing for these years, I think the ½ cent sales tax was handled improperly as I have said throughout, it should have been a referendum. If possible I would like to see the save our homes provision of state taxes eliminated.
9. Has the county commission managed the taxpayer-funded Environmentally Sensitive Lands program well? Can you cite examples of good land acquisitions, and examples of not-so-good acquisitions? What is your definition of a good ESL acquisition?
I very much like Bing’s Landing and the purchase of this facility in 1989, but I seriously question the additional purchase in 2009 of 2.5 acres for $1.5 Million for parking, especially when the basic cause of the parking shortage is the influx of residents from St. Johns County to use the launch ramp because it is free of charge. Perhaps placing a cost of launching, to out of county residents, would have reduced the congestion and need for this purchase.
The Bulow Park purchase for $2.5 Million, a price $900,000 more than the county’s own assessed value for the property appears to have been an ill conceived purchase, especially since immediate ingress and egress was not included in the purchase.
My definition of a good ESL purchase is one in which the citizens of the county get the best property available for the best price possible. The initial Bing’s Landing purchase is to me fulfilling of the proper expenditure of and good stewardship of the citizens resources.
10. Last May the Volusia County Council approved a domestic partnership registry, granting unmarried couples, including gay couples, the same benefits as married couples. That means partners can visit each other in hospitals and jails and can make funeral arrangements for each other. Would you be supportive of such a registry in Flagler County? If not, why not? If yes, would you be willing to lead the initiative from the commission?
The statutes of the State of Florida will prevail in the way this matter is handled. A registry, if done within legal parameters, is something I can see being an acceptable effort, but also only with the consent of both partners. I would have to do research into the legality of the issue, the documents approved by Volusia and other counties, if any, and determine how it affects all citizens of the county.
From a citizen perspective I rate Mr. Coffey at a B level of performance from what I have seen and heard. Recently I heard from a trusted elected official that his strength is not in math. This is disturbing, but may well define why this year’s budget process was delayed when a shortage of $5 Million in revenue vs. expenses. I have no way to substantiate this claim by this elected official, I would not be comfortable with making that statement as fact until personally verified.
He has great strength in development orders which is a valued attribute because of the history and nature of development in Flagler County. Doing the process correctly is very important to maintain our balance between development and open space.
I have some concern about his willingness to dismiss alternative suggestions too readily and without what I consider thorough research. I use the Sprung Structures proposal I made to the county commission as an example. Had research been done, he would have refuted the claims of commissioner Holland and my opponent that this product had been presented before and rejected, a false statement.
You say you have no way to substantiate the claim about Coffey’s math abilities and would not be comfortable making the statement as fact until you verified it. But you just did, knowing that it would be part of your published answer. You’ve had time, one must assume, to do some verification–Mr. Coffey having a relatively open door, especially to candidates learning about the administration. have you met with Coffey and attempted to get an answer to what amounts to a considerable question?
You did not read my math statement correctly, I said “I heard from a trusted elected official . . . . .” I then said I would not be comfortable making that statement AS FACT until personally verified. No I have not personally met with him, yet but will in my time. I am attending the County Citizen Academy to learn about the administration, and have been for six weeks.
12. Evaluate the workings of the county commission: do you consider it an effective local government? Can you cite specific examples of its effectiveness—or areas of concern that you would deal with differently? Are you satisfied with the way the commission and its administration relate to the public?
The effectiveness of the county commission can only be measured by its ability to perform the duties it is challenged with, growth, economic development, administration and policy determination. Unfortunately this board and the former two boards were very slow in making corrective decisions on issues affecting many of our local citizens. Namely, Marineland Acres/Armand Beach flooding now for more than 30 years. Correction to the Beverly Beach water and sewer problem where there was some disagreement about the solution, one which now after five years has begun to correct. The Flagler County jail has been overcrowded for at least 10 years without any solution on the horizon. Yes a study is underway, but why does it take 10 years to get to this point and after it is presented how much more time would they take to develop a plan of correction. In the meantime, as Judge Raul Zambrano says, and I have also spoken with R. J. Larizza our State Attorney about this and he confirms that regular meetings are held to determine which offender being incarcerated should remain and which should be released to make room for the current incoming contingent of offenders.
I think Commissioner Nate McLaughlin is a great communicator with the people through his daily involvement in the community and his willingness to hold regular town-hall meetings and answer the questions and concerns of us residents and his willingness to get involved in the issues of his district, the water well being my reference, to improve or respond to the issues important to those constituents. My opponent has not held any town-hall meetings that are recorded in the County Administrator’s office, because I requested the information.
But Hanns–since you bring up the issue of his connection with the public–has been elected five times, and is the longest serving elected official in Flagler County, by far. To what do you attribute his popularity?
He has been elected by the citizens of the county four times, once he was unopposed. Ask the citizens why they reelected him. I think you make an assumption that he is popular, that is not what I hear in the community.
I think there are two current commissioners who have attributes I want to continue to complement. Commissioner Alan Peterson for his dogged stewardship of our tax money, an attribute I will place as my emphasis also. Commissioner McLaughlin for the community involvement discussed in the previous question is also a good example of leadership.
Collegiality is a two sided coin and I like to consider myself an asset to such groups. Take the Board of Realtors as an example. I have served on six Florida committees, the Flagler Realtors board of directors for two years, many committees, some of which I have chaired including the Ethics and Standards of Practice committee on which I continue to serve. I think my propensity for thoroughness may be an issue for those who would rather only view the periphery and not delve into the minutiae of an issue, which I do.
i) I was surprised to get the endorsement of the Florida Association of Realtors because you are a Realtor. What have they told you as to why they selected me over yourself? I am sure you must have asked and been upset at their decision.
I have served on the Flagler County Association of Realtors Board of Directors for two years, a normal term, six committees of the Florida Realtors, to uphold the integrity of the organization, as well as various committees and committee chairmanships within the FCAR including the Ethics and Professional Standards grievance board. I also served on the public policy committee and as it chairman. The policy of the Political Action Committee is very clear that no preference is given to candidates because of being a Realtor. So when the announcement was made, I spoke to the Board of Directors and was informed that the decision was made by the five members of the committee who did the screening, with the board blessing the choice. The committee incidentally was made up of three members of your political party and two of my political party.
ii) How can the public have confidence in you on land use decisions when in 2009 the County Commission disbanded the Planning Board you sat on because of bad decision making of that Board, including decisions you made that were not authorized by our code?
You need to review the minutes of the August 17, 2009 county commission meeting in which the explanation for eliminating the two boards, Planning and Long Range Planning and Land Development Review Board into one board which is the existing Planning and Development Board was due to monetary constraints. Specifically I will quote: “This issue is coming up this year due to the severe reductions in the Growth Management staff and the monumental tasks they are facing such as the Comprehensive Plan and the forthcoming land development reviews (LDR’S).” There is no mention anywhere in this agenda of your alleged bad decisions. It goes further to state that the staff would be directed to issue letters thanking all committee members for their service to the county. A letter which I received. So confidence in me will occur when I face all issues on their merits and not the fact that a developer gave ME campaign contributions.