Budget, economy dominate Lee County Commission debate; District 3, 5 candidates square off
By MATT BLUMENFELD, “mailto:email@example.com”>firstname.lastname@example.org
With local governments in dire fiscal straits and Lee County’s economy mired in a slowdown more than a year old, it was no surprise that economic and financial concerns took center stage at Wednesday night’s commission debate.
Incumbents and challengers alike tried to paint themselves as the answer to the region’s economic woes in one of the election season’s first showdowns, which was hosted by the Southwest Cape Coral Neighborhood Association.
“I’ve provided, I believe, the stable influence and bold leadership that Lee County has needed over the last 20 years,” said District 3 Commissioner Ray Judah, adding that he has overseen the stewardship of the region’s critical environmental resources since coming to the county in 1983. “That’s really the basis of our economic prosperity.“
District 5 challenger Shawn Seliger was quick to argue that incumbent Frank Mann voted for 53 tax increase proposals over the course of his time in public office. He called for aggressive business friendly policies to generate jobs within the county.
“It’s time for a change, it’s time to make Lee County better,” said Seliger. “I want to see us rein in government spending and our taxes to help make our economy better again.“
Fellow District 5 challenger Richard Kuhn argued for a major overhaul in the county’s approach to commercial development. He called for the economic development department’s expansion and tried to persuade the audience of the importance of designated industrial sectors to bring economic stability while minimizing the impact of growth.
“If we do not wish to be chained to the boom and bust of tourism and construction, we must vastly increase the development of clean industry in Lee County,” he said.
Two questions from the audience focused on the services Cape Coral receives from the county for the taxes that its residents pay, an issue that many across the city, including members of the City Council, have complained about.
Former Fort Myers Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda, who is running against Judah, pounced on those queries. She said communities across the region feel like “red-headed stepchildren” who are being overlooked when it comes to the county using its dollars for projects in their areas.
“I think that speaks volumes to the disconnect there is between the government and the people that we serve,” she said. “I believe I have the ability to bridge that gap.“
“I haven’t found somebody from Cape Coral that has said we’ve been treated fairly. Not one,” added District 5 candidate Sonny Haas.
But Judah defended the county’s relationship with municipalities, pointing out the millions it put up for the Midpoint Bridge about a decade ago and the recent contribution of $1.5 million to a solution to the Ceitus boat lift as prime examples of the Cape receiving its fair share.
Mann noted that unincorporated areas of the county pay additional taxes that residents in municipalities do not so that their taxes can be more focused on city governments.
Seliger took the question as an opportunity to try and score some points, pointing out that Mann was once part of a group that opposed the Midpoint Bridge’s construction. He said Mann’s opposition cost taxpayers a bundle as the cost more than doubled during the dispute between the city and county.
“Due to his delays on this project, it increased to $175 million,” said Seliger.
Beautification and green space also received some attention from the candidates, all who spoke up in favor of sprucing up the county and preserving segments of open land.
Mann called for preserving “quality of life” and hanging on to green areas like the county-purchased segment of Babcock Ranch. He also pressed for widespread median beautification, saying that all of Lee County’s major corridors should look like McGregor Boulevard, though finding funds will be tough.
“It’s a difficult dilemma, but it’s one of my top priorities,” he said.