City budget audit proves most divisive issue among Ocoee commission candidates in otherwise friendly political forum
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
Candidates for City Commission speaking during Women's Club of Ocoee-sponsored political forum Monday.
Ocoee City Commission candidates for Districts 2 and 4 grappled with the question of whether the city should be independently audited, an issue that emerged as the biggest sticking point during Monday’s political forum where incumbents and their challengers differed little in their opinions about the city’s needs, growth and direction.
Sponsored by the Woman's Club of Ocoee, the two-hour political forum was held at City Hall but televised and streamed. Sue Lowrie with the Women’s Club, who served as moderator along with Michelle Applegate, said viewers could phone in or email questions. A three-person panel would review them to ensure they weren’t repetitive, personal or statements and that the questions would represent the widest variety of topics.
The audience asked a range of generally innocuous questions about the candidates’ volunteer service, reasons for running, priorities and even explanations of some government terms and acronyms they used in their responses. However, candidates did talk at some length about their views on affordable housing and transportation as well as privatization of trash service and city audits.
The first question was whether candidates would support an audit of every city department with at least a $750,000 budget. This was because the city outsourced trash pickup in 2019, which diminished service while raising residential fees. Most of the candidates said it seemed that the privatization of trash service turned out to be a bad idea but had a variety of opinions regarding auditing the city.
Trash and audits
Incumbent George Oliver III, vying for a second term in District 4, was the most vocal in his support for an independent audit. Oliver, who became the first-ever African-American elected to the city commission (read his VoxPopuli Q&A), said he’s long called for an operational audit, which was approved in 2016 but never funded. Conducting such an audit would provide the city with a better fiscal picture of itself, highlighting areas where it was strong and where it needed help, he said.
Oliver’s challengers — political novices Lori Hart and Keith Richardson and former commissioner, Joel Keller — were mixed on the issue of audits. Hart, a critical-care nurse-turned elementary school teacher, said she agreed an audit could help but that it could be done in-house without spending $100,000. Richardson, a former U.S. Marine, now an associate pastor, said having outside sources look at the city’s books is a good idea to determine how it spends taxpayer funds. (In 2019, Oliver had sought a $100,000 earmark for such an audit.)
Keller — a four-term commissioner before Oliver defeated him in 2018 — said there’s no reason to spend $100,000 for an outside audit that can be conducted in-house especially given the city’s high bond rating. Oliver later countered that Keller was referring to “comprehensive annual financial reports,” which municipalities are required to send to the state government. “That report only tells us that we have a balanced budget,” said Oliver, who maintained an operational audit would determine where and how the city’s money is being spent.
District 2 Commissioner Rosemary Wilsen, who’s seeking her fourth term and is being challenged by newcomer Knox Andersen (read his VoxPopuli Q&A), said she didn’t think it was necessary to spend $100,000 for an audit, citing “strong, competent” management within the city, “healthy” reserves and in-house audits. She said spending that amount for an audit may not actually save money.
Andersen favored an audit, saying the commissioners are supposed to be “good fiscal stewards” and that departments should be held to the highest standard possible. He said an audit might reveal expenses that can be cut and that it’s “not unreasonable” to ask the city to tighten its belt.
Regarding outsourcing trash pickup, Wilsen was the only commissioner who voted against it in 2019. She said the in-house trash cost had not been increased for nine years, calling that a “mistake,” and that’s why it looked attractive to outsource the service. Several candidates, like Keller, pointed out that the private contractors stick to the terms of the contract but don’t provide extra service while in-house city workers probably did more. Both Wilsen and Keller said outsourcing had been tried earlier and it didn’t work out then.
Oliver, who voted for privatization, said outsourcing the trash service should have saved residents money without affecting the level of service. “That has yet to be proven at this point,” he said. He said the city should now get out of the contract, if it could, and go back to in-house trash pickup.
Housing and Lynx
All the candidates agreed that both affordable housing and affordable transportation are issues for Ocoee but provided general responses about what can be done.
“It’s a tough question to answer,” said Wilsen about affordable housing. The city does accommodate affordable housing such as a complex for elderly residents based on income, she said. But homes are more expensive; what used to cost $50,000 now costs $150,000 and up. Her challenger, Andersen, said the rising housing prices help current residents but not future ones who want to settle in the city. He suggested the city work with state and local partners to find a solution.
Keller said the city needs to work with housing developers and the state and federal officials to get help young couples, singles and others get financing so they can afford homes and apartments. Hart said the Community Redevelopment Agency, which helps revitalize areas, is one agency that is helping. Richardson said the city needs to study who’s in need of such affordable housing, such as their incomes, and explore programs that can help them to get better education and higher incomes. But he offered no details on which programs he was thinking of or how they might assist with affordable housing.
All the candidates said that the city needs to review whether it has a larger bus ridership and then work with Central Florida’s public bus agency, Lynx, to potentially provide new service and new routes. Wilsen said Lynx currently provides a small bus that residents must call to arrange for pickup. Oliver said he believes the city has the ridership now, but the city should approach Lynx as a “collective unit” and demand better service.
But Richardson said it’s essential to get feedback from residents to see if there is a need and create a plan based on that. Without evaluating the need, “we can run into trouble,” he added.
Priorities, growth and business
Growth and traffic also emerged as priorities. Hart said she’s running on a platform of “balanced growth.” She said it’s important for citizens to “have the things that they need here inside the city without having to go out.”
Oliver said the Community Redevelopment Agency should take on greater responsibility to find a better use of State Road 429, which goes through Ocoee, such as hotels, gas stations and shopping malls. He’d like to shift the focus away from the West Oaks Mall, which isn’t producing economically for the city, and establish more sit-down restaurants and other retail establishments in the city’s downtown area. In a related question about supporting the service sector, all the candidates said it was important to patronize local establishments. Oliver said he estimated that the city lost “90 percent” of business on Friday and Saturday nights because most people went to Winter Garden to dine. He and Keller said officials should visit other municipalities to see how they’ve handled the solution.
Downtown revitalization is one of Keller’s biggest priorities as well. He said he wants to bring in more small businesses, restaurants and jobs in District 4 and citywide. Traffic is also top of his list. Clark Road is finally being widened but officials should also take a look at McCormick Road. He said the two-lane road is essentially the border between Apopka and Ocoee with both municipalities building on their sides. However, the county, which owns the road, isn’t doing anything about widening it, he added.
Richardson agreed that traffic is a growing issue and said that the city needs to partner with developers to find a solution.
In response to a question about why he should be re-elected, Oliver said his priority is “one of accountability.” He said he hopes the city is in great financial shape but again stressed the need for an audit because if it finds savings in the city, that can be used to retain firefighters and raise their salaries, and revise the downtown master plan, among other things.
During his opening statement, Andersen said an important element of his platform is raising Ocoee firefighter salaries — he wants to conduct a salary survey comparing Ocoee’s fire department with similar agencies — and reimbursing firefighters who are required to get EMT certification within two years of being hired. Firefighter retention was also a top priority for Richardson in his opening statement.
(During a commission meeting last month, advocates asked commissioners about reimbursing firefighters for the $8,000 they must spend out of pocket to get EMT certification. The commission said then that the city was in contract negotiations with firefighters and if they bring up the issue then it’s certainly something that could be considered. But commissioners and city officials said they were hesitant to talk about it in an open meeting.)
Andersen also said that the city should look at whether its existing parks are being used to their fullest extent and advocates greater communication between the city and its residents.
Wilsen, who rattled off a litany of achievements in her opening statement, said “smart planning” remains a top issue as the city continues to grow. She said such planning will keep “industrial segments” of this growth in the industrial park, close to major roadways and keep tractor trailers off residential streets.
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