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FORT PIERCE — Although the city’s six mayoral candidates agree the race’s most important issues are jobs, budgets, crime and port development, they have different ideas on how to deal with the problems.
Curtis Boyd, Christine Coke, Vince Gaskin, Charlie Hayek, Linda Hudson and Christopher Williams hope to fill the vacancy left by Mayor Bob Benton, a two-term commissioner and two-term mayor who is running for the St. Lucie County Commission.
The new mayor would take office during a still struggling economy, high unemployment and failing businesses — the Downtown Business Association estimated half of the historic area east of U.S. 1 is vacant. The new leader also will inherit the city’s reputation of not being business-friendly because of its cumbersome permitting process.
Property tax revenues continue to decline, leaving less money for the city to balance its budgets. The city, like most local governments, has tried to cut expenses and increase revenue, and employees are doing more with less.
High crime rates remain while low morale in the Police Department festers, in large part because officers haven’t seen raises in several years. Experienced officers are leaving for other jobs.While the state urges the city to increase cargo operations at the port, residents still debate its merits. Proponents say it would create more jobs, revenue and business opportunities. Opponents worry it will destroy the Indian River Lagoon and the revenue it generates.
Here’s what the candidates had to say about the four topics in separate interviews this week:
Boyd: He would personally welcome businesses and ask how he could help. Making City Hall business friendly with easier application processes and changing the city’s image are ways to improve the economy. “Before visitors are going to be excited about coming back to Fort Pierce and spending money to help our local economy, we’re going to have to fix our interior neighborhoods (and) have a safer image to the surrounding communities.”
Coke: She would create a Citizens Economic Development Council to focus on the city. Instead of helping several businesses in small amounts, the city should concentrate on one business the way J.C. Penney used to attract people downtown, which would help the other businesses. To be successful, the city needs Lincoln Park Main Street to become as successful as Fort Pierce Main Street.
Gaskin: He would loosen the city’s height restrictions to allow a hotel to be built and attract new businesses. The state, St. Lucie County and the city together need to find the money to move the wastewater treatment plant off South Hutchinson Island. “We’ve got to grow with the times. We’re not an agriculture town anymore.”
Hayek: He plans to make one current city employee an ombudsman who would take an applicant to all the necessary departments for the required documents and then follow up weekly. He would visit new businesses monthly to see how they’re doing and if the city could help them to be successful. He would push for joint meetings with St. Lucie County and Port St. Lucie to help attract people to the area.
Hudson: The city needs affordable taxes and utility rates to attract businesses and jobs. She would let business applicants know everything they need to do to come to the city with measurable timetables for each part of the process. “You walk in there and they say, ‘Hi, how could I help you get your business through?’ not ‘How can I obstruct with all the things you can’t do?’”
Williams: The answer to attracting new businesses and creating more jobs is lowering utility bills. Businesses have left the city because they can’t afford the overhead with the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority. He wants to abolish the authority’s board.
Boyd: Positions in planning and building departments may not be needed anymore. He would determine if assistant department heads are necessary and examine the city attorney’s office to find savings. The city would save money if employees followed the law to avoid lawsuits against the city. “You’ve got to distinguish luxuries and essentials within government.”
Coke: The city would have saved money if it had changed its retirement plan for employees five years ago. Sick time shouldn’t be cashed out at retirement. She would make budget and property tax rate decisions based on actual numbers. “I would much rather see us predict gloom and end up with extra than predict roses and sunshine and end up with not having the money. We have to have a more realistic view on exactly what’s coming in.”
Gaskin: He would figure out a plan, such as a tax break for new businesses, to bring in new businesses and generate new revenue. The city can’t charge “an arm and a leg” for permits or make it a long, drawn-out process. “We’ve got to make Fort Pierce attractive. We’ve got to dress her up and make her friendly to the businesses.”
Hayek: The city needs to stop wasting money on charrettes because the majority of land is privately owned, such as the $17,500 spent for the western peninsula of South Hutchinson Island. The city also needs to look at employees’ salaries and their long-term benefits. “It’s unsustainable as a government to keep paying these pensions that we’re doing. We’ve got to start a new policy.”
Hudson: She would reinstate the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee and use zero-base budgeting with a line-item review to decide if each expense is necessary. She would review personnel services and find a way to curtail pension and health insurance costs. She has strong feelings about open records and making the city transparent and accountable. The city needs to sell city-owned property that was meant to be flipped before the housing market crashed and put the properties back on the tax roll. “We’ve got to figure out a way to live within our means and pay down the debt and still serve the people.”
Williams: The city has to find “ways out of the box” to generate revenue, so he is working to create an annual benefit concert at Digital Domain stadium where the city and other local governments would benefit as sponsors. “These are things we need to start looking at to create revenue to cover our problems in our budget.”
Boyd: He would make raises for police officers a top priority. He would clean up dilapidated areas through the creation of neighborhood associations, such as an Orange Avenue Business Owners Association. “Orange Avenue is a main access road from the interstates to the beach to the downtown area, and it really looks like heck.”
Coke: She would support raises for police officers if the city could find the money. The city needs more community participation through programs and organizations that offer alternatives to crime and violence, such as the Police Athletic League. “We need to continue (lowering crime) to ensure that our Police Department remains stable and not a training ground for other local police departments.”
Gaskin: He would support raises for police officers if money were available and the city could afford it. He deals with criminals because of his background as a police officer, private investigator and bail bondsman, and said he can go into crime-ridden areas, such as the northwest part of the city, and talk to people when they may not want to go to the police. “I’m not afraid to go out there where my counterparts don’t have that accessibility.”
Hayek: He plans to actively seek raises for police officers either through city money or federal grants. He wants to see more police on bicycles throughout neighborhoods to have more one-on-one contact, reduce crime and make officers more aware of their surroundings. “The residents all get to know their police officer. He’s not a vision through a windshield.”
Hudson: She would support raises for police officers if the city could find the money. People want to live and work in a safe city. “Everything else follows for the public safety. If you have safe streets and safe neighborhoods, then you can have businesses who are up to locate here (and) you can have people who want to live here.”
Williams: He is seeking federal money to help hire more police officers and give raises. The Police Department needs to increase its visibility in the community.
Boyd: The top priority is not harming the Indian River Lagoon, but he has seen full-fledged cargo ports Miami and Freeport that still have beautiful waters. He wants to see it developed as mixed-use — part cargo and part tourism with a hotel. “As long as it’s environmentally sound, I’m all for it. We just don’t want to get reckless and ruin what we have that’s so precious.”
Coke: The city should take advantage of whatever projects are available now and be ready for development when the economy rebounds. She wants it developed as part cargo, part tourism and part commercial with the existing cargo working at full capacity, a resort or hotel and fisherman’s wharf next door.
Gaskin: He wants expanded cargo, whether it’s a small amount of a full-fledged cargo port, to create jobs. The question of whether cargo development could harm the lagoon shouldn’t be a factor because the city needs to get the port working to get people working. “I’m not going to put fish, turtles and everything else before human life. We’ve got to get our priorities straight. If I can take care of family over a turtle or a fish or a reef, then that’s a no-brainer to me.”
Hayek: He wants a multiuse port by retaining the existing cargo and operating it at full capacity, as well as adding shops, restaurants, a marina, mega-yacht facility, maritime school and “things that would draw people from other areas to come and visit.”
Hudson: She supports a mixed-use port with some cargo and some recreational, but nothing that would harm the Indian River Lagoon. Increasing cargo would be easy since the existing cargo barely is operational.
Williams: The best way to sell the city is as a tourist attraction with cruise lines to help promote the beaches, downtown and fishing. The city should put together vacation packages for people coming in and out of the port to generate money and give developers a reason to build in the city.