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When things happen in Cedar Key, they inevitably happen at the same time. Despite occurring the same Tuesday evening as the City Commission Comprehensive Plan Review, the Candidate Forum co-sponsored by the Lion's Club and Cedar Key News, was well attended by both candidates and citizens.
Following a delicious dinner prepared by the Lions Club, Distinguished Toastmaster James C. Green moderated a two hour question/answer forum of twelve county, state and national candidates. Questions for the candidates had been dropped off or emailed by voters and were also entertained from the audience.
The candidates for School Superintendent, Bob Hastings and Jeff Edison, started out and remained in the hot seats. Most questions involved fair hiring practices. Mr. Edison was asked point blank if he would hire Cliff Norris as Assistant Superintendent if elected. His response, "No, that is a vicious rumor. That would be like taking your mother-in-law on your honeymoon. Also, I do not intend to fill my position in the near future with the economy the way it is."
Inevitable budget cuts were also on the voters' mind. Bob Hastings clarified that "We must look in every budget and put in cost control measures. 81 percent of the budget is payroll so that will have to be a logical place to look, but teachers and those who work directly with the students will be the last place to be touched."
Mr. Edison agreed that cuts were inevitable with FTE down, insurance rates up and the class size amendment coming into effect next year, but he agreed that, "The classroom will be the last place we touch."
A question about the School Board's unused buildings revealed that most were actually rented out or being used. Concerns about discipline problems from Special Education students prompted both candidates to site the legalities of following the student's IEP and placement decision which is determined by a team. Mr. Edison added that, "Since I have been Assistant Superintendent, discipline problems are down 63 percent." Mr. Hastings said, "As high school principal of four Levy County schools I always had the lowest discipline rate of all the schools."
A question from the audience wondered if money could be saved if Levy County Schools only taught English but both candidates confirmed that they already do, using a full immersion ESOL model.
After some discussion of the sign mess left by candidates, the hot seat moved to the Property Appraiser candidates, Incumbent Francis Akins and his opponent Osborn "Oz" Barker.
One question was in regard to classifying the property along Highway 24 as commercial or agriculture. Both agreed that if property is being used as commercial, it should be classified as such, but that if it meets the criteria for agriculture then it is agriculture. Mr. Osborn added, "I want to make sure your assessment is fair, I'd like to see the tax burden spread around to everyone. I am a conservative man and I will lower the cost of the administration of the tax office."
The hot issue of high property taxes in Cedar Key then took center stage. As the millage rate is set by the County Commission, the buck was then passed to them.
Incumbent Danny Stevens explained, "We have continued to reduce the millage rate to you. The budget passed last night was 15 million less than last year. We are also using grants and shared revenue and portions of the ad valorum go to the CRAs of both Cedar Key and Williston."
Incumbent Tony Parker added, "We have cut every department's budget by five to fifteen percent while still maintaining the quality of the department. There have been no raises and there is a hiring freeze in effect now. We have made every effort to cut the fat."
Parker's opponent Abraham Blitch responded, "Tax is a burden, the budget went down fifteen million but seven of that was grants and four was not coming in. We should spend according to our needs. A lot of the departments are being paid twenty percent overtime. There was no county raise but there was an increase in benefits paid. The budget needs to be looked at more than three times a year."
Jerry Robinson, Danny Stevens' opponent contributed that, "In June, 44 vehicles were being driven home. They may be part of a compensatory package with some employees but there is no contract. Those are your vehicles, your gas, your expenses."
The question of who Levy County's Constitutional Officers were and why they get paid so much was addressed to the candidates? The salary figure of ninety thousand a year was mentioned. Mr. Stevens said, "Their salary is set by the State of Florida according to our population and they are our Property Appraiser, Supervisor of Elections, Sheriff, Clerk of Court, and Tax Collector."
Candidate for State Representative Don Curtis was represented by his wife. She addressed the problems of state legislature unfunded mandates that have burdened school systems and the lack of vocational education, as concerns of her husband. She said he also supports "developing more biodiesel facilities to help our nation as well as give us jobs." Mr. Curtis is the Republican candidate running against Democrat Leonard Bembry.
Mr. Bembry was represented by Charles King. He said, "Mr. Bembry is not going to tell you he is not going to raise taxes in situations where it is necessary. But, he will fight to the last minute to eliminate the waste of anything with his name on it."
Candidate for State Senate, Democrat Susan Franks' representative emphasized that "Florida is fiftieth in the nation in education and my candidate is also against unfunded mandates, it is time to make the legislature more accountable. In 1989 there was a constitutional amendment against unfunded mandates with the exemption made in case of emergency and there being a sixty percent majority in congress. The Republicans have been using that loophole. Make sure the state legislature does not have a super majority this year."
The Republican candidate for State Senate, Charlie Dean, was not represented.
County Commissioner Lily Rooks was in the audience and told the State government candidates that she opposed and would continue to oppose major mining in Levy County. She added later that, "Levy County was being targeted by the state and that this mining would be out of county hands and up to DOT."
There was some confusion when John Russell, candidate for U. S. House of Representatives arrived late and began to deliver a campaign speech. As the others had not had this opportunity the audience quickly stopped him. He later apologized for being late but added that he was invited to attend with the understanding that he would be late and assumed all the candidates had spoken. Mr. Russell spoke for a clean environment, alternatives to drilling for oil, and an end to the hand in glove relationship between corporate America and the federal government.
His opponent Incumbent G. Brown-Waite, Republican, could not attend but made her apologies and actually met recently with Cedar Key voters.
The evening progressed with a discussion of Levy County's nuclear power plant currently in the approval process. Mr. Akins agreed with the others that the project was six to seven years from completion and that it would add to the coffers of Levy County but said, "Take a good look at Levy County as it looks now 'cause it's going to change."
Mr. Akins also advised Cedar Key to take a good look at Amendment Eight regarding a working waterfront to see if it could help the local clam and fish industry.
The evening ended with voters better informed and candidates, hopefully, better understood.