SEBRING — Kevin Roberts is the Republican candidate for Highlands County Commission, District 1.

Roberts is the Founder and Chairman of the Board for the Champion for Children Foundation of Highlands County.

His professional experience also includes serving 16 years as the Director of Human Services for the Board of County Commissioners in Highlands County from 1994-2007.

Highlands News-Sun asked the following questions to all the County Commission candidates.

What do you think is the best way to balance the county budget, (given the options of raising taxes, enacting assessments, cutting departments and/or cutting services)?

Roberts responded: As the Human Services Director for the Highlands County Commission for 16 years, from 1991–2007, I recognized early on that the County Commission was, generally speaking, opposed to raising property taxes and fees. As a county Director, I was expected to live within the adopted human services budget. There were, at times, exceptions based on unexpected emergencies or mandates.

I might add, living within my means also applies to my personal life. I never spent more than I earned! This was the lifestyle that I embraced!

If elected County Commissioner on November 3rd, the County Administrator, county directors and department heads would be expected to present a fiscally conservative budget that does not recommend raising property taxes. As a fiscal conservative, I have no desire to raise property taxes or enact additional assessments, unless we are confronted with an unexpected emergency, such as an unforeseen natural disaster.

It is important for the County Commission to also work closely with the Constitutional Officers and seek creative ways to balance the budget and avoid raising taxes. I personally know all the Constitutional Officers, and I do not believe that any of them want to see the County Commission raise taxes. They too have learned to live within their means.

Cutting departments and / or cutting services would only occur as a last resort upon the recommendation of the County Administrator and staff. I would be careful not to cut critical or essential services. When going through the 2021-22 fiscal year budget process, I will learn, if elected, more about the inner working of each department; thus I will be better informed as to what areas of the budget to cut.

I might add that while working 16 years for the county, I always found ways to develop strong public / private partnerships, which in turn saved the county thousands of dollars. County Commissioners should seek, when possible, strong public / private partnerships with the goal to save or leverage tax payer dollars.

How would you prefer to improve the business climate for local employers that would encourage and enable them to hire more local workers?

Roberts responded: I would want to study various ways to improve the business climate, including interacting and relating to local employers and learning from them what county policies, ordinances or regulations inhibit the growth of their businesses. Small, medium and large businesses are the engines that drives our local economy; therefore, it is essential that we listen to business owners, and strive to remain a business friendly community.

Generally speaking, I am in favor of tax abatements when the objective is to entice large businesses to move their companies / operations to our community. This would stimulate the economy and hopefully create good paying jobs. I believe the Highlands County Commission should support economic growth by providing partial tax abatements.

From my research, I don’t believe tax abatements are frequently utilized in Highlands County to entice large companies to relocate to our community. A better approach might be to help current businesses already located in Highlands County. We could assist them in expanding their current operations by offering a partial tax abatement! The feasibility of this approach needs to be researched by county staff, with recommendations made back to the Commission.

What methods do you think are best to encourage new employers and their employees to relocate to Highlands County (given the options of more workforce housing, lower housing density, tax incentives to employers, new infrastructure for facilities and workforce training)?

Roberts responded: For starters, Highlands County is a great place to live, raise a family and retire! We need to aggressively market the beauty of Highlands County to prospective employers.

South Florida State College has strong vocational and technical programs, preparing a workforce that will meet the needs of new businesses moving to our area. Bachelor degrees are now offered to all eligible students, unlike just a few years ago.

Because of our capable and dedicated law enforcement agencies, Highlands County is a safe and secure place to live! We have parks and recreation, including many lakes and golf courses. We are centrally located, and just a short drive to international airports and large urban areas. We have both public and private schools that educate our children and youth. We have many non-profits organizations and churches that can enhance the quality of life for those residing in our county. Highly skilled inpatient and out-patient medical services are available and easily accessible.

As mentioned previously, I am also in favor of partial tax abatements to attract new businesses to our area, and to help expand existing businesses. We need to focus on having a business friendly community.

Several areas of concern include the lack of good paying jobs, affordable housing, including rental units, and a workforce prepared for large companies locating to our county.

To promote economic development, the County Commission should work closely with Meghan DiGiacomo, Executive Manager of the Business & Economic Development Department for Highlands County. Periodic presentations should be made to the Commission by Meghan DiGiacomo, showcasing her efforts to create a business friendly community and attract new businesses to our county.

It was a wise decision several years ago for the County Commission to make the Economic Development Commission / Industrial Development Authority an “in-house” county department, as opposed to separate free standing entities. I believe this decision gave the Highlands County Commission greater input and influence over economic development.

What do you think are the best ways to ensure that commissioners always hear, recognize and represent all of their constituents (given the wide differences exhibited in the past 2-4 years in commissioners’ use of town hall meetings, social media and personal communication that have resulted in varying degrees of connection and disconnection to constituents)?

Roberts responded: I think connectivity with our constituents is vitally important. Because we are elected to serve all residents, perhaps we need to “brainstorm” various ways to improve the public’s perception and accessibility to the commission.

I know it has been tried before, but perhaps the Commission could revisit the idea of scheduling one evening meeting each month, instead of two morning meetings. Constituents with full-time day jobs would have greater opportunities to brings their issues, concerns and suggestions to the commission.

Workshops could be more frequently scheduled, at various times, allowing more opportunity for constituents to participate. I also like the idea of properly noticed, quarterly “town hall” meetings involving all commissioners. An open Q&A period might be helpful, or the commissioners could simply listen to the concerns or comments of our constituents.

Since I have never served on the Commission, these suggestions may not be feasible; however, they may be worth exploring.

What leadership role should the county commission take in a worldwide, statewide and local disaster, such as COVID-19, the effects of which can be mitigated by local behavioral and procedural changes for both individuals and businesses?

Roberts responded: How we effectively handle any given disaster depends on the type of disaster we are confronted with.

For instance, local control is often the best control when it comes to handling disasters, such as hurricanes or other natural disasters. We know our community best, not the politicians in Washington or Tallahassee. We are also in the best position to articulate our county-wide concerns to state and federal officials.

Our Emergency Operation Center (EOC) is fully trained, competent, and ready to be activated as the need arises. In case of an emergency, our local law enforcement officials have a rich history of working closely with the Commission, County Administration and the EOC staff. We would of course seek reimbursement from FEMA for disaster related damages.

The County Commission should probably look to the Governor’s office when experiencing a state-wide or world-wide pandemic. There would be more consistency with emergency responses if all Florida counties sought direction and directives from our Florida Governor. The Governor would remain in close contact with Washington, DC and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for important health updates, and he/she would in turn disseminate the critical information with recommendations to local officials. Some responses would be mandated by the governor’s office, while others would be left to the discretion of local commissions and city councils.