LAKE PLACID – Set upon a dais, surrounded by 30 American flags, Highlands County candidates informed voters on their vision for the future of the county Tuesday night. The event was sponsored by Psalm 91, LLC and hosted at Lake Placid Camp & Conference Center. Everyone was greeted with a mask to wear and hand sanitizer. Social distancing was observed for the most part.
Candidates included Highlands County commissioners for Districts 1, 2, 3 and 5 as well as one candidate for Clerk of Courts and Comptroller. The event was moderated by Miguel Arceo. Candidates who attended were: Kevin Roberts, candidate for HCBoCC District 1; Jodene Thayer and Shird Smith Moore II, candidates for District 2; Jeff Carlson, candidate for HCBoCC District 3, and candidates Christopher Campbell, Vickie Pontius, and Greg Harris, incumbent HCBoCC District 5. Moore gave a very brief introduction and left to get to a HCBoCC meeting.
The only candidate for Clerk of Courts in attendance was Jerome Kaszubowski. Kaszubowski gave an introduction and a closing statement but did not answer audience questions as there was no room on the dais. Ned Hancock, candidate for the Florida House of Representative District 55, gave a closing statement as well. All candidates at the forum were Republicans.
More than 60 guests were invited to take notecards and submit questions for the candidates to answer after their opening statements. There were four questions put forth.
Candidates were first asked if they would quite their job in order to serve as a county commissioner.
Carlson said he would not but knew how much time being a commissioner would take as he has held the position before for two years. He has arranged his office in order to make adjustments for meetings.
Campbell said he wished he was in a position to retire but he has the ability to work from home and have his office run, leaving him time for the position of commissioner.
Harris joked he is not available to retire as his wife wants him to work 30 more years.
Pontius said being a commissioner would be her full-time job. She retired from the county and said she has the time, experience and energy to serve full time.
Roberts said he will probably work full time as he is retired. He is chairman of the board for Champion for Children that takes about 15 hours a week of his time.
Thayer simply said, “yes.” She got a chuckle from the crowd as she already announced she is retiring from her current position as of Aug. 28. She believes the job requires “dedication” and could work full time.
Candidates were then asked if they feel the current safety posture is working. If not, what improvements should be made. Because the question was not specific, the moderator and candidates decided to answer it concerning COVID precautions.
Campbell responded there are no easy answers and “we” are doing the best with what is available. There is no silver bullet for coronavirus and to use precautions, he said.
Carlson said he was for smaller government, less regulation and burden on businesses. People need to take personal responsibility. He wants to see people washing their hands more. He said government should not regulate and people should be responsible.
Harris said several surrounding counties were mandating wearing masks and the HCBoCC looked at it in their recent meeting. He said he wears a mask but Highlands County, especially the Sheriff’s Office, does not have the resources to enforce that. He said it weighs heavy on his mind. He advises masks, washing hands and social distancing and be more diligent but it is difficult to mandate.
Pontius doesn’t want government mandating what she is to do. She is for following CDC protocol.
Roberts had mixed views on masks and felt it was an overreach of the government to mandate. He is a big proponent of personal responsibility. He said testing is up and mortality rate is down and there should be a balance.
Thayer answered the current posture is not working. The numbers of cases are going up. People are not using enough precautions, according to her, and the numbers go up until there is a vaccine. She uses CDC guidelines personally.
The next question regarded what the candidates will do to bring new businesses into the county.
Campbell seemed unhappy with less than 2% revenue growth in the county the last 12 years. He wants to bring businesses to the county to expand the tax base. Zoning is a key and letting businesses know we are available. He thinks talking to other counties to see how they are bringing in businesses. He also said business owners that have been looted and do not feel protected may find Highlands County a nice home.
Carlson said sound long-term planning is essential in order to have the county look like it’s what the residents want. For instance, an industrial building next to residential homes would be undesirable. He cited the Sebring Regional Airport Authority where there are many acres ready add waiting for businesses.
Harris said site surveys are needed. He also said the EOC is working hard. Harris thought incentives should be given, such as tax abatement over a 10-year period. He read a letter from a business that decided to stay in the county and expand.
Pontius said her approach would be to continue to educate, especially with vocational schools, to man the industrial businesses and stay in the county. Her more immediate plans are to help the small businesses that are in trouble from the COVID pandemic.
Roberts said the county has to be business friendly and have the infrastructure and the roads. He suggests giving incentives to get outside businesses here, and working with the Economic Development Office to help expand businesses.
Thayer said bringing employees to the county requires better paying jobs. She said not retail and restaurants, because they don’t pay enough. She said industry will bring the higher paying jobs. Training for those jobs is necessary and they will need workforce housing such as smaller single family homes. Industries have to want to enter the county and know there are sites ready for them. Regulations have to be put in place for rezoning of some areas.
The last question was mandating masks in school. All candidates answered they did not feel that was the government’s job and was up to the School Board and the parents. Many candidates said they did not envy the tasks that School Board members are facing as school goes back into session during a pandemic.