Hendry County’s new county administrator is a lot like most of its residents – intelligent and hardworking, with high ideals, working to keep the best of the past while trying to lay the groundwork for a better future.
A county employee since 1999, Jennifer Davis feels she is “in the place God wants me to be now” and she is very happy about it. From her first day on the job as CFO for then Clerk of Court Christine Pratt, she has steadily worked and learned, building the experience that would help her meet the challenge of her current position.
“I hope to create a higher quality of life for our citizens,” she says, and it’s clear that she’s sincere. Growing up in a hard-working ag family, married to a Clewiston man from a similar background, Jennifer is a Hendry County girl in her head as well as her heart. She and her family have a vested interest in Hendry County’s future. She fully appreciates that she is now in a position to have a real voice impacting the future of her home, family and neighbors.
You’d have to look hard to find someone with more knowledge and experience in the details of running the county. She’s seen triumphs and missteps first-hand, felt the pride and disappointment that came of them. She’s determined to forge a better pathway to the future.
Working for the county with the highest unemployment rate in the state, currently 5.4, is a chronic fact that will help keep a dedicated public servant grounded. The fiscal challenges alone are daunting.
She recalls that early in her career Hendry County had a budget of some $100 million levying 10 mills. Now the commissioners are working with $70 million in the budget and this year they went to the rollback rate for the first time in quite a while. Essentially, that means there was no change in the ad valorem tax rate this year.
Everybody in government knows they need to control the budget, but there are many components that keep that target in motion.
Integrally familiar with the county’s budget, Ms. Davis says a cash reserve is a necessity and right now that reserve is gone. Hendry’s $5 million emergency reserve fund has served its purpose well, covering for unexpected expenditures due to emergencies, such as debris removal after hurricanes. However, Hurricane Irma wiped out that fund and it must be replenished before another disaster befalls Hendry County’s citizens. Without that reserve the county would have to dip into other “pockets” to fund recovery efforts, or take out a line of credit.
She said that, for Irma, Hendry County should get 95 percent of its emergency expenditures back, possibly 100 percent as a Fiscally Constrained County. However, the entire process would be detrimental to the rest of the budget.
To continue its emergency reserve and its responsibility to its citizens, the county must “tax appropriately,” Ms. Davis knows, but there is no “magic key” to a solid budget, except to control your finances, grow your economy and try to anticipate future needs.
Growth means more rooftops and more businesses to share the burden and expand services. So, although she is not directly responsible for things like economic development and education, Ms. Davis believes she must not only be aware of what’s happening on these fronts, but also help guide the county toward new opportunities when possible.
According to Ms. Davis, a number of building permits being pulled and the fact that the county has had to hire several new building inspectors are good economic indicators that need to continue and expand.
In her new position she hopes to help find ways to increase the county’s level of service to the community using the knowledge and experience she has gained over the years to accentuate the county’s strengths. Ms. Davis is a believer in Hendry County, which she sees as one of the most beautiful places in Florida, with wide open spaces and a critical, central location in relation to larger cities, beaches and attractions that draw residents and visitors alike. She hopes to help diversify and grow local amenities built around our amazing world class natural water resources, Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River.
She looks for a huge bonus in the economy from Airglades Airport privatization and improvements which will spill over into added commercial growth, especially in the Clewiston area and even have regional impact. Lake Okeechobee should continue to draw worldwide attention as a fishing destination. On the western side of the county, water also plays a big part with the Caloosahatchee River as a worldwide draw as well. She hopes to see amenities to attract tourists and new residents – both important to the county’s growth and well-being.
As with many other surrounding counties, Hendry County has a severe affordable housing deficit that needs to be addressed, in conjunction with other economic issues.
One of the things she is working on is the county’s various internal processes, she said. Streamlining the way county conducts its business saves time and effort, and ultimately leads to lower costs. Some bottlenecking is due to regulation, she noted, but she is working hard with all departments to expedite methods and processes as possible.
Officially voted into the position October 23, Ms. Davis as already making some changes and appreciates that all the staff that have been so supportive and “have all stepped up for me.” She said she wants to encourage staff to bring ideas for improvement to her.
Education = power, she said. Better education leads to better understanding, to better decisions for the county and to economic opportunities for its citizens..
She is a big proponent of a return to vocational training that will address local needs in the future including job creation. Commissioner Michael Swindle plays a big role in adult education as well as other vocational training programs. FGCU and Alico are creating an agri-business center that would ultimately offer a bachelor’s degree in business with a minor in agriculture. She believes that the county’s best interests are to retain, and continue to develop, its agricultural heritage. Hopefully local students would start their business/ag degree at the FSW campus in LaBelle and finish at FGCU, using the Curtis Scholarships that are available for some students.
She also said she is grateful for the example of her predecessor Charles Chapman: creating partnerships with all kinds of people and agencies that provide important avenues of knowledge and support.
“I am where God has put me today and very honored to be able to hold this position in the county where I have lived my entire life and raised my children.
County Commissioner Darrell Harris, for many years an integral part of choosing new county administrators, has pretty much seen it all, including a time when the commission methodically conducted public interviews of candidates from around the country. But it’s been a struggle.
“It’s all about the fit,” Commissioner Harris said, adding that he feels Jennifer Davis will be one of the best. “She’s excellent,” he commented, “with the experience and the background for the job.” He said she’s a problem solver who knows the ins and outs of every department, having been Director of Finance for so long. She can deal with people,” he said, “and it all comes down to how you handle people.”
Ms. Davis said she appreciates the opportunity to work with staff and the commissioners and is excited about Hendry’s future.