Commission candidates questioned by Republican Club

Gary Bruce, President of the Republican Club of St Augustine, convened a forum at last night’s meeting for those candidates attempting to qualify in the August Republican Primary Election for St Johns County Commission District 5.

The format allowed each of the three announced contestants an opportunity to make an introductory opening, answer three questions from the floor, and then make a closing comment.

St Augustine Beach consultant Rachael Bennett led off the introductions; followed by St Augustine businessperson Alan Kelso, and last, the incumbent; who is a retired federal government employee. Members of the St Johns County Republican Party and Executive Committee attended as guests of the local St Augustine Republican Club.

Bruce threw out the first question — asking the candidates to pick out the one thing they felt “is most important to the county”, starting the responses with Alan Kelso.

Kelso identified bringing jobs to the community. “Everything that we do in this county is based on employment in this county,” Kelso observed. “We’ve got to get back to the very solid building of this community.”

Ken Bryan, the incumbent, answered, “The most important thing and the most important job I have as a legislator is the safety, health and welfare of you as my constituents in this community.”

Bennett, acknowledging, “government cannot create jobs,” pointed out that “the only thing that can create jobs is a healthy economy”. Citing the healthy economy as her “most important”, she went on to identify two components to achieving her goal. Bennett suggested that creating a tax base that is supported “not just by residential development, but also on commercial development” is the first component. The other, she said, “lowering the cost of government doing business”.

St Johns County Soil and Water Conservation District Group 3 Supervisor, Henry Warner asked the candidates how they would expand upon the county’s two biggest industries — tourism and agriculture.

Bryan answered first, saying, “I was born on a farm so I don’t mind getting my feet dirty.” He went on to say he has a “very good understanding of what the agricultural base is in the county.”

Acceptance of the incumbent’s liberal ideas on tourism has been chilly, at best. As he faced the room of fiscal conservatives, he spoke about his actions and record on tourism; mentioning that, within his first couple of months in office, he instigated the “evacuation” of the entire tourist development council. “Right during commissioner comments, I called for a total restructuring.” He went on to admit, “It wasn’t very well received, but it was something I saw that needed to be done.”

Bryan also admitted that he was “the one who was responsible for increasing the bed tax”. He said, “I took a lot of criticism on that, as well.”

Likewise, Bryan reminded the audience that he is the one who made the recommendation to increase the operating hours of the bars from 12:00 midnight until 2:00 a.m.; admitting, “a lot of criticism from that, as well.”

Bennett did not mince words or speak in generalities — in her consultancy she tracks the 20,000 acres of farmland in St Johns County and could cite specific areas that she says need her attention as a commissioner. Despite later claims by Bryan that his board has reduced property taxes in the county, Bennett revealed that, “the agricultural lands paid more in tax this year than they did last year … there is no cap on the amount of tax, that hurts the farmers.”

“St Augustine has something that no other community on this coast has and that is tremendous history,” Bennett observed. She says that she was “chagrinned” when she heard about the recent efforts to legislate eminent domain for the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind; applauding the resident’s efforts to protect homes in their National Register Historic District.

Kelso challenged what Bryan has really done to help family farmers and his assessment of agricultural taxes, “Within the farming and agricultural industry, the taxes that have been raised upon them has been a tremendous hurt to them,” Kelso said.

“We heard how taxes actually went down,” Kelso said, challenging Bryan’s “very good understanding” of the plight of local agri-business employers. “They did not, with the tax increase that took place.”

“We have a prime destination location for them,” Kelso said of the current appeal of “stay-cations” claiming that tourist businesses in St Augustine have told him that sales are up this season. “And why shouldn’t they be,” Kelso quipped.

Kelso was critical of the present commission for not being more involved in the upcoming 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s discovery and claim of Florida in the name of Spain in 1513, as well as the 450th commemoration of the settlement of St Augustine by Pedro Menendez in 1565. Kelso says an adequate spirit of cooperation between St Johns County and the cities of St Augustine, St Augustine Beach and the Town of Hastings does not exist and points the finger at Bryan for being the cause of some of this animus; especially with the City of St Augustine.

A multi-part question from the floor asked the panel to discuss what they are going to do about impact fees, their view on the need for residential and commercial development, and Community Development District fees

First, Rachael Bennett clarified that the Board of County Commissioners has no control over budgets adopted by independently elected CDD members. “I believe in the free enterprise system and the free market,” Bennett, whose talking points include support for private property rights, responded. “Market demand is going to determine whether or not more houses are built. No one can afford to build a house that won’t sell.”

As to impact fees, “I would like to see a moratorium on impact fees,” Bennett said; a point also voiced by Alan Kelso. “It goes further than that …” he continued.

Developers have already been granted “impact fee credits” from the county to build infrastructure to support future construction. If you do away with or hold impact fees in abeyance, Kelso believes those developers holding the credits will want to be paid. “There are $250 million in credits.” Kelso says that if the county is not levying the impact fee then the developers, who paid for the infrastructure in advance, will not be able to recover those fees from future buyers.

Kelso closed with a comparison. He faults the way we have done business in government in the past, with the impact fee dilemma we find ourselves in today. He compared the advance knowledge of county commissions, as far back as the 1990’s, that the FCC was going to require public safety to move from the present VHF radio band to the 800 MHz UHF band — yet, each commission kicked the can down the road for the next commission to deal with.

Bryan barked at Kelso, “OK, this is where the experience on the commissioner comes in.” The incumbent went off a colorful tangent of several emotionally couched vignettes; apparently trying to justify the +$30 million radio system purchase — which was not in question. “It’s easy to make these decisions when you’re not in the commission, but when you’ve not been exposed to the real life issues that we’re talking about,” Bryan said.

Kelso offered a clarifying rebuttal, “No one should think that the radio system was anything to do about not being built — that was not the issue. This was not suddenly upon our plates. It is something that has been known about for years.” We are building emotional output to talk about a situation, but the problem was transparency on this.

Photo credits: © 2012 Historic City News staff photographer

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