OKEECHOBEE — Candidates for city council took time Wednesday to answer some questions Okeechobee residents have been asking. The five candidates are Dowling Watford, who now serves as mayor; Bob Jarriel, who is completing his first term as city councilman; Jon Folbrecht; Chris Martin and David McAuley. There are three seats available.
As you may know, one of the items bundled into the ballot question about updating the city charter is regarding changing the city clerk position from an elected office to an appointed one. What you may not know is the reason why this subject was even raised. There is a state law requiring elected officials to live in the area where they would serve. They cannot run for office and then move to the area. They must move there prior to even qualifying to run.
For many years, this has not been a problem, because Lane Gamiotea lives in the city and has run for this office multiple times and filled the position. When Gamiotea took office, she had already served as assistant city clerk for many years and knew the job inside and out. However, in more recent years, the role of assistant clerk has been held by people who do not live in the city. This is not an issue, because an assistant clerk is not an elected office and therefore does not fall under the city resident requirement. The concern held by the council is that if/when Gamiotea chooses to retire, her assistant will not be eligible to run for the office.
Because only Okeechobee City residents are eligible, it makes for a small pool to choose from. In 2020, according to the United States Census, the city of Okeechobee had a population of 5,254. This includes men, women and children. On the other hand, if the council were able to appoint a clerk, the pool would become infinite as the candidate for the job would not be required to live in the city.
When asked whether he preferred to leave the position elected or change it to appointed and if he agreed with having the change to the clerk office bundled into the charter question on the ballot, Watford said he would like it to stay elected but understood the reasoning behind the requested change and felt it should be up to the voters. “I don’t have a real strong opinion either way although I kind of like the elected clerk because it keeps her from being under anyone’s control.” He went on to explain he was not happy with the decision to bundle both things on the ballot but with a 3:2 vote, he was one of the minority. Voting along with him was Councilman Noel Chandler. “I was very disappointed they did not split that out, and I think it was because they thought if it was split out, it wouldn’t pass.”
McAuley said he felt the reason the council has for wanting to change the clerk’s position to an appointed one is very solid. “With all the trouble they have had filling the assistant clerk position, they were concerned about filling the actual clerk’s position after Gamiotea retired. They felt like the restrictions were too narrow.” His objection was to the way it was placed on the ballot. “
When you take a voting right away, it should be more important than just Roman Numeral V in a group of items on the ballot. “I actually stood up in a council meeting and pressed to keep the two items separate, but it was tabled by Councilman Jarriel, and when I tried to bring it up at the next meeting, it was as if it was already decided.” He went on to say if the question had been explained along with the facts and then the public agreed to it, he would be 100% fine with it. “Our right to vote is pretty sacred,” he said.
Martin said he felt Gamiotea was doing a great job and said no one ever ran against her anyway. “What does it really matter?” he asked. “If no one is running against her, they already know she is going to come back in. Nobody has any issues with her.” He said he did feel it was better for the citizens to keep the right to vote in their hands. “I agree with the rest of the charter but sliding that question in there probably shouldn’t have been done.” He does not mind either way but thinks the people should have the choice. “Most of the time when they slide one thing in there, they do it on purpose. Kind of like, I’m going to give you $100 but also this cat turd.”
Jarriel said he understood and agreed with the reasoning behind the recommended change and added that out of the 412 municipalities in Florida, only 10 of them vote on the city clerk. He supports the changes to the charter and said one thing he has learned in life is that everyone needs to answer to someone, and if the change is made, the city clerk’s position will fall under the jurisdiction of the city administrator. The city administrator is appointed. The city attorney is appointed. The police chief is appointed. They all answer to someone. The city administrator answers to the city council, and the city council answers to the voters. He added he believes combining the items into one ballot question was the right choice because they spent a lot of money on the charter, and it took about a year and a half to put it together. “We wanted to bundle it because we felt very strongly about the charter and the clerk. We felt like if people thought we were trying to get rid of Lane, and they support Lane, they would vote no, and it has nothing to do with Lane.”
Folbrecht has made his opinion clear on the subject of the clerk’s office for several weeks now. He said he does not really mind whether it is an elected or appointed position, and he understands the reasons why the council suggested changing it. His problem is with bundling the subject in with the charter, forcing residents to choose between having an updated charter and having the right to vote for the clerk. “I applaud their efforts to update and revise the charter,” he said. “But there are folks in our community that want to see some of those revisions and don’t want to see others. I think that taking away the rights of the voter packaged in with updating the charter is just wrong. It doesn’t let the voters make a conscious decision.” He said his issue is with taking away a right of the voters without fully explaining what they are voting on. “They think they are just revising and updating the charter. Most people will not notice the part about the city clerk.”
A second question asked of the candidates involved the city’s millage rate. At this time, the city has a millage rate of 6.8987 which is the rollback rate based on the previous year. The rollback rate is the ad valorem tax rate required to raise the same amount of money as the previous year but based on the current property tax base. One mil equals 1 in taxes for every $1,000 of taxable property value. For example, at 7.6018 mills, the city tax on a home valued at $150,000 that qualifies for $50,000 Homestead Exemption would be $760.18. The candidates were asked why the city needed as much money this year if the city was not paying for the fire department and why many other cities in Florida have lower millage rates.
Watford said there is no way the millage rate can be lowered and still offer the services the city provides now. He added the biggest expense is always employee costs. “You’d either have to cut staff or lower salaries. To be competitive, we can’t lower salaries, or they will go somewhere else.” He added the city does not have a very large tax base either. He said the present council has been very aggressive in adding things to the budget despite wanting to cut the budget and the millage rate. “For example, we are spending a lot more for legal services, for planning and zoning. We added employees. That all adds to the budget.”
McAuley said the millage rate is higher partly because the property values in Okeechobee are not as high as those in other cities. “Even though they may have lower millage rates, they are paying a lot more in taxes,” he explained. His sister lives in Tallahassee where the millage rate is lower, but her tax bill is enormous compared to those in Okeechobee. He said the council would really need to get into the budget to see where the money is going and where expenses could be cut. He added he knew the financial department knew where every penny went and it is all accounted for but is it necessary? “That’s the part I really don’t know.”
Martin said he did not understand why Okeechobee citizens paid so much compared to other cities without offering any extra services. “I think the budget needs to be gone through. I’ve got no doubt India is doing a good job. However, there should probably be someone who can look into that and make sure everything is on the up and up.” He said he did not understand why after the closing of the fire department, the taxes did not go down more. “If you do your budget every year and it does not come out right, you need to lower it until it does. You can raise it up again later.”
Concerning the millage rate, Jarriel said the city has not dealt with infrastructure in a long time. “All of a sudden, they want to spend the extra money on infrastructure. I didn’t feel it was fair to the taxpayers. It’s not their problem. It’s not their fault we haven’t dealt with this in 20 or 30 years. Now, we have a five-year capital plan strictly for infrastructure.” He said he would like to see the taxes be set at 5-5.5% and will continue to push for this if reelected. “I want our city to be able to function without cutting services but still help our people. People are hurting.”
Folbrecht said he would like to look into why the city needs the same millage rate when they are not providing the fire services anymore and the amount of money paid to the county for those services is about half what we were spending. “Where did my savings go? You told me you were saving me money, but where did it go? He also said with his property taxes going up, he will still be paying more despite the lowered millage rate and has not really saved any money at all.
Finally, the candidates were asked how they felt about keeping the city’s reserve/savings at the level it is now. Many Florida cities have a reserve of two to three months which means they have enough money saved to run the city for two to three months if needed during a time of emergency. Okeechobee has approximately a one-year reserve which some believe is excessive.
Watford summed it up by saying he always equated it to his savings account and the more he has in his savings account, the more he has to fall back on.
McAuley said he is very comfortable with having a higher reserve. “We are two hurricanes away from needing that reserve. I don’t worry about what other cities do; I worry about my city.”
When Martin was asked about the reserves, he said he did not see how you could be accurate projecting savings for a year. He said it is very unlikely our city would have multiple hurricanes in one year and need that much savings. “We are so far inland, we don’t usually get as many disasters.”
Jarriel said the council has agreed they do not want to spend the reserve on regular expenses, and he is comfortable with the amount in there now.
Folbrecht said he had no issue with keeping the equivalent of a year's budget in reserve. “One thing I’ve always believed is it is better to have too much and not need it than to need the money and not have enough.”
Early voting takes place Oct. 29-Nov. 5 from 8:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. at the election office located in the Historic Courthouse, 304 N.W. 2nd Avenue.