Editor’s Note: Leading up to the city election, we’ll be asking candidates to weigh in once a week on a question about city government. The candidates are given almost a week to respond to the question in writing and we do not edit their answers.
What are the city’s two largest challenges and how do you intend to address them?
These candidates did not answer the question: Alex Everts, Barry Mansfield, Gregory Steen, Lori Martin Gregory, Rusty Juergens
Kristen M. Dreyer:
We have more than two challenges facing the city right now and all are equally important. Some are short term and can be handled quickly while others require a strategic plan executed over the long term.
Take law enforcement as an example. We are already understaffed at our department. With over 7,000 new homes already approved there is going to be an increased need for additional officers. With new recruits taking almost 18 months to train we are already behind in our hiring. As a longer-term strategic plan, we need to give Chief Balken the ability and the resources to be able to plan ahead for our growing community. This includes recruiting new officers, recruiting experienced law enforcement officers, and procuring new equipment to make sure we have an up-to-date police department.
We also have infrastructure needs. We can complete projects that are already in the works and are already funded. We also need a long-term strategic plan for water, roads and sewer considering the pending residential and commercial growth.
Less than a year ago, 70% of our citizens voted to show that they care about these two issues by way of the renewal of the penny sales tax. It’s important that we use it wisely.
We also have two issues that the city is currently facing regarding leadership. As a newly elected city councilperson I intend to pull together all the information concerning the lawsuits the city is facing as well as the untimely firing of the leader of a department. Someone must be accountable for the decisions that are made. City Council is where that accountability begins and ends.
The two challenges that the next mayor has to address quickly are 1. The fiscal health of the city. 2. The sense of perpetual crisis.
There are a number of large and looming threats to the city’s solvency. Lawsuits, mismanagement, and a pension crisis could each individually force a restructuring of our city’s finances. Collectively, they threaten our ability to execute basic functions of government. As someone who has grown businesses, I worry that our current leadership has compromised our ability to grow.
We’ve failed to address basic quality of life issues for big swathes of our community. We have a homelessness crisis, management issues from the Office of the Mayor that are eroding morale, leading to public safety concerns in our community, and are failing to deliver opportunities for our city and its people to grow and thrive. We have to stop lurching from crisis to crisis.
The City of Ocala is known as “a great place to live, work, and play.” However, from a citizen’s viewpoint, public safety – that I feel SAFE at home, at work or at play – is one of the city’s greatest challenges. And the issues that public safety encompasses include addressing gun violence; moving away from stop gap measures to address homelessness; the ongoing opioid crisis; access issues whether it is access to healthcare, broadband, or affordable housing; economic sustainability – both the city itself (especially given the pending $81M in fire fee refunds) and local businesses post COVID.
The other related challenge is that of division and polarization within the city that handicaps and distracts from cohesive and inclusive action regarding policy. One can but cite the issue last year over the mask ordinance; the more recent debate over the proposed gender-neutral language in the city charter; and the termination of the Fire Chief by the City Manager and calls for her dismissal. Add to this the protracted lawsuits, both pending and yet realized, surrounding the homeless ordinance, the lawsuit over the illegal fire fees, the lawsuit questioning the $9.2M non-ad valorem fire rescue assessment.
Any City Council member is but one vote. But that one vote represents a voice for constituents. Using that voice to convene – collaborate – communicate on these issues with transparency can expedite policy and ensure that all citizens’ voices are heard. Focusing on the work of our community partners, such as the new Public Policy Institute study addressing our youth and their families to stem the violence in our community, as but one example, can create that inclusive climate that fosters the health, safety, and well-being of ALL.
Currently there is a tremendous need for housing. Our community is about 2,500 homes short on affordable homes. We are also approximately 5,000 short on market priced homes. Currently I’ve been working on two projects that would provide some 250 of the affordable homes. This isn’t something the Mayor typically works on however these folks have come to me asking for help. We at the city need to welcome these projects with open arms.
The other issue is Chronic homeless. There are many things being done regarding folks that are truly homeless and trying to get back on their feet. However, the chronic homeless are a real problem. These are people who have chosen to be homeless, living on the streets. It’s very violent on the street. There’s also a tremendous amount of drug use. So here’s what we did to help those that wanted the help. We created a program called Open Arms Village.
It’s made up of men who’ve said, I’m done, I can’t live like this anymore and I’m will to do what’s required to get myself out of this situation. When they leave us they have thousands of dollars, a full time job and a place to live. We have an 85% success rate.
Jim Hilty Sr.:
I believe the two biggest issues facing the City are:
1. Fire User Fee – The City of Ocala was found liable in the amount of 81 million dollars to be refunded to the citizens of Ocala. To date, litigation is ongoing and additional legal fees continue to mount. Since the courts, on numerous appeals, have agreed that the City is liable, it is time to face the issue and stop the appeals. Therefore, each household should be paid what is due finalizing this issue.
2. Homeless Population – There is a need for a central facility to evaluate and case manage each person based on their mental, physical, and emotional health. The client would then be referred to the existing agencies that could then provide the services based on the client’s need. It is imperative that all agencies work together so as not to duplicate services.
And of course one of the greatest needs amongst the homeless population is affordable housing.
Mental health and drug abuse awareness and the Homeless crisis.
1* I believe by hiring and supplying grant funded resources like volunteer mental health staff to observe, access and give a diagnosis. Once we get the diagnosis we move to the next step of treating and finding the right medication for their illness and progress.
I have a idea of using a few remodeled army barracks for a Last chance transitional house for the homeless. We will have paid or volunteer workers to give life management skills classes. Cooking,Cleaning,Sowing,budgeting and trade classes for a reset button on life and independence. I will also Study and gather more information from across the nation and cities to gain a broader idea on supplying inexpensive housing and federal grant monies to build upon.
Expanding at an unsustainable rate. While I do encourage growth and want Ocala to thrive economically, we are frequently seeing approval of large residential developments at both a city and county level. This could strain essential services to those already residing here and we need to sustain the access to community resources that all of the residents currently have. Providing sufficient Police and Fire Rescue services along with quality schools is a top priority of mine and I am concerned that over-developing our city at a rapid pace is a challenge. We should look at the impact of these changes and not focus only on traffic patterns when discussing. Creating problems like overcrowding local schools will impact our residents’ children and their education and would require another branch of our local government to rectify the issue. I have already voiced this concern at the last city council meeting and will continue to do so as these types of plans are voted on.
Unity as a community, recently there is tension amongst residents and those in major city roles. We need to ensure that people are being heard and their concerns are taken into consideration when dealing with issues and making major decisions. Elected officials are chosen by the people so voters should feel confident that their representation is doing what’s in their best interests. If certain topics or concerns are still being discussed week after week and brought to the city’s attention then leaders should be both listening and also addressing them. If elected as a City Council member I fully intend to do this.
One challenge as a City Council Member I have had is managing the fast growth that Ocala has experienced in recent times. Many people are moving to our City because of the many opportunities Ocala has to offer. With the rapid growth I was able to meet those infrastructure challenges which included an increase demand for, roads, utilities, fire service. law enforcement, water, sewer, garbage and fiber services. All of this we were successful in meeting those demands including funding growth for public safety. With the use of the 1 penny sales tax for capital and equipment, along with priority budgeting were able to maintain a flat mileage rate.
Another challenge was working through the fire user fee litigation. Though, I was not on the board at the time this fee was implemented, I have been working to reduce the amount to be paid back with reserves in an effort not to raise the fire rate fee.
The two largest challenges are the Fire User suit and our city finances.
Fire User Fee – The suit has gone on for over 5 years with the prevailing at the trial court level 3 times but being reversed by the 5th DCA on appeal. It is important to know that the 5th DCA never mentioned actual damages. My strategy is to continue to work with our attorneys to push our position that the User Fee was unconstitutional but the fees collected provided approximately 50% of the funding for our Fire Department. The Ocala Fire Department provides excellent services and responses to critical life events to our citizens. It has also lowered the fire ratings which determines insurance premiums that we all pay.
Our City finances are always a considerable problem as we try to balance ever increasing costs which include salary and benefits to our employees. I will continue to monitor our budget while controlling costs. Controlled growth is a way to add citizens and increase property values within our City Limits. This growth will increase revenue to help pay for increasing services.
Two of the largest challenges facing Ocala are housing/infrastructure and public safety. Both of these items tie back to two of my key platform issues, which are (i) managed growth and (ii) support for our first responders.
Addressing the issues head on with a proactive approach will help resolve these challenges.
Ocala currently has a deficit in housing, traffic congestion, and over-taxed utilities due to current city leadership failures. With the current exponential growth of our town we need to make sure we are looking ahead and planning for adequate, affordable housing, expanding the capabilities of our utility infrastructure before it is needed, and reviewing traffic loads to determine problem areas before they become an issue. If elected for City Council I will ensure Ocala is being proactive and planning for growth instead of reacting to it. I will also work quickly to help mitigate the issues we are presently facing due to the lack of planning.
Ocala’s next biggest challenge relates to public safety. Employee retention for both our police and fire has been a major issue that’s been unaddressed. Due to lack of competitive compensation packages relative to competing municipalities we are losing our first responders. This is another issue I will address head on, proactively, before we lose more employees and put Ocala’s safety at risk.