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By Lou Elliott Jones
If anyone came expecting fireworks at the candidates forum hosted by VFW Post 5625 and the Chiefland Citizen, they were likely to come away disappointed. But hopefully they came away better informed.
The event on Friday Aug. 1, at the VFW Post in south Chiefland, likely the only candidates forum being held before the Aug. 26 primary, drew about 30 people for the steak dinner beforehand, and candidates and their surrogates from the County Commission District 2 and District 4 races and the Congressional District 3 race.
District 2 — incumbent Chad Johnson (R), and surrogate Russell Meeks standing in for his son, Rock Meeks (R), who was attending a visitation; and Robert Studstill (No party).
District 4 — incumbent Ryan Bell (R) and Jamie Griffin (D). The other candidate in the Republican primary, Lily Rooks, when contacted by phone earlier in the week, said she was unable to attend as she was going to a friend's visitation and she declined to send a surrogate in her place.
In the Congressional race, attending were Jake Rush (R), Marihelen Wheeler (D), and Kat Cammak, campaign manager for incumbent Ted Yoho (R), who was tied up in Washington, D.C. with late votes on legislation before Congress took a five-week break.
Also in attendance was state Rep. Charlie Stone (R-District 22) of Ocala who took the opportunity to thank voters for their support. Stone, first elected unopposed in 2012, had no opposition again this year. Stone, who represents western Marion County and all of Levy County, noted that this is the first time in a long time that the county is represented by one legislator rather than being carved into pieces and having several representatives.
"I will be there for you for two years," Stone said. The representative said one thing he learned in Tallahassee was that his years of experience as a county commissioner helped him. "If you don't have somebody in the Florida House that understands about local government you never know what you are going to end up with in legislation."
Levy County School Board Member Chris Cowart of Cedar Key (District 2), who is not running for office, also thanked the audience for its support of the school board.
Each candidate was afforded three minutes to introduce themselves and then questions were posed and each candidate answered.
Johnson, in his introduction stressed his local ties, that he is a small businessman and has contributed to many community organizations. "I am a strict Constitutionalist," he said, and mentioned he is a strong advocate of private property rights.
"We must not lose sight of those things that make us a great place to live work and play," Johnson said. He also stressed his credentials as a certified and advance county commissioner and his work with the Small Counties Coalition.
Russell Meeks, the candidate's father, told the audience while he could not speak on his son's positions, he said he has been interested in politics when he was 18 years old. "He was elected to the Otter Creek Council, the youngest person in the country to do so." He said his son is active in the community.
Studstill thanked the veterans present in the audience for their service before talking about himself. He stressed his roots as a fourth generation county resident. He said he retired from working at the University of Florida. "I will work for your tax dollars," he said. "I will serve you with honesty, dignity and professionalism." He mentioned that he will work full time as commissioner. Studstill said also thanked Johnson and Meeks for running a clean campaign and, said, "We all work very hard at it."
Bell said he tried balancing the three most important things in his life – being a county commissioner, as owner of BubbaQues and Bell's Catering, and as a family man with a wife and two children. Saying he was attacked in his race four years ago as being too busy for the office, he said maybe the citizens need a busy person in the job. "Busy people get things done," Bell said. He said he returns calls and visits constituents.
Griffin said the forum was what he He mentioned that the county is facing issues like attracting a hospital and construction of the new college campus that will bring jobs to the area. "I would like to get some major things done that would do something for the county," he said mentioned that he has started and operated businesses like three restaurants — Bett's Big T, Bronson Restaurant and Seabreeze in Cedar Key, and a construction company.
Rush put some humor in his introduction by mentioning he was a deputy "which I discovered people don't like cops so I became a lawyer and discovered even fewer people like lawyers. His experience int his professions, he said gave him an unclose view of the "barriers of an entitlement handout" culture. "The Constitution is near and dear to my heart," he said. Rush said he was part of the first legal defense of the state's Stand Your Ground Law.
Wheeler mentioned that she has over 30 years experience as a teacher — including teaching in Bronson and Chiefland, and working with former White Foundation founder Bill Schossler in juvenile delinquency issues. She said she has also been working on water issues as an environmental advocate for 10 years. "I think I have the skills set," she said to face the issues that affect Levy County. She also mentioned her "farm girl" roots growing up in rural Kentucky near Fort Campbell.
Cammak said it was easy to tell the difference between her and her boss Yoho, "I have more hair." She introduced Yoho's wife, Carol, who attended the forum before talking about the congressman. He is a large animal vet, christian conservative and small business owner."He basically got to a point where he said I just had enough with government and the rules." Cammak said Yoho's three key issues are: the national debt, security and addressing the lack of accountability by government and officials. "Because if we can't move past these issues we cannot move forward." She also noted that he was one of only eight freshman congressman who have a bill passed and that it was sitting on the president's desk waiting to be signed into law.
Q: What is your view of a full-time politician?
Johnson said as a representative republic county commissioners are not meant to be full time, but said they are there to oversee operations, provide insight and vision and to high qualified leaders that are engaged.
Meeks said," I don't see how a county commissioner in this county can be full time." He said a person needed a full-time outside job, "because a person needs to live."
Bell said a county commissioner should have an outside income and they "should have to live within the laws that they pass.
Griffin said," It is to a citizen's advantage to have a full-time commissioner in office to know what is going on." But he also said the salary would have to be raised because $35,000 will not be enough for a full-time commissioner.
Studstill said he will be a full time commissioner available to serve and he will be at all meetings.
Q: What is the importance of fire, EMS and solid waste assessments?
Johnson said the alternative to the assessments is higher property taxes to support the services, but there is a 9 mills ceiling on the taxes and because rural counties traditionally have low property values, the county could not collect enough money to support them. He also noted that 54 percent of properties in the county contribute less than $200 in property taxes and by having every one pay an assessment "it puts each and every property engaged and involved in the services that they get from the county. "it s the most equitable way," he said, and it contributes to the betterment of the county.
Meeks passed on answering on this.
Bell noted that "everyone pays" with an assessment and it is more equitable and he said "It unfairly taxed those how had greater home values and who probably used it less," Bell said. He said as "everybody knows medical is not cheap." He said the county keeps 5-6 ambulances on the road at a cost of about $487,000 a year to operate.
Griffin said "fair" is the keyword. "It was divided by everybody," Griffin said. "By doing the assessments its going to make the other (property tax) rates go down."
Studstill said he owns two properties and he pays "good property taxes."
Q: What are the plans to encourage new growth and development?
Studstill had no comment on this question.
Griffin said his experience as a businessman since the age of 18 positions him to know what it will take for development to occur. "One thing is to offer things that will bring people here and to me one of the main things is a hospital. A hospital is going to bring people here to build it. A hospital is going to bring people to staff it. And they are going to bring their families here." He said it is the same case with the construction of the $14 million College of Central Florida campus north of Chiefland.
Bell mentioned he is on a "strike team" that is partnering with municipalities to rank and jointly fund projects, rather than just relying on the county to fund studies that are later shelved. He said it made for a more cohesive effort. He also mentioned that the county is asking the voters in a Nov. 4 referendum to allow the county to grant a roll back in property taxes for businesses that local here and create jobs.
Meeks said he would like to see the hospital and college campus built.
Johnson said Levy has "always been a bedroom community of Gainesville and Ocala." He said it was expected that youth would leave. "This is an age old struggle for Levy," he said.
That is changing, Johnson said. "With the college being funded," Johnson said, youth can stay at home and complete their education and the Legislature's goal of bringing economic development to the rural counties. "We need to lean on them," Johnson said. "We need broadband to increase technology access int he county because you can't get business without it."
Q: Will you seek three bids for equipment costing over $5,000?
Studstill said, "You should always get three bids."
Griffin said, "For that amount of money, if I get stuff, I get three bids."
Bell said the state ad the option of getting bids or to "piggy back" onto state contract bids. He mentioned that the commission weighs whether the cost of going with the state bid — sending two employees out of town in a vehicle and the cost of bringing the new item back against the possibly higher local bid and had gone local where it is advantageous to the county. "Sometimes what looks like the lowest and best bid is not always the lowest and best," Bell said. "It's not just black and white. You have to put some common sense to that.
Meeks said he supported going with the bid process in place.
Johnson said the county had done a good job of allocating and using resources adequately. But he also told the voters,"You depend on us to use the gray matter between our ears," in making decisions. He said the county goes with the lowest and best bids, stressing "and best."