For the first time on a single platform, Navarre-area District 4 County Commission candidates Dave Piech and incumbent Rob Williamson met in debate at Grover T’s Restaurant May 3 during the Santa Rosa Republicans County Commission Debate.
The pair fielded questions on a variety of issues including party affiliation, taxes and economic growth.
Williamson told the gathered crowd he entered politics as a calling.
“I have a calling to make things better and to try to improve anything that I am a part of. I love helping people and making a positive change. For more than 10 years, I learned about the county and served in a wide range of leadership roles throughout the county,” he said.
Piech told the voters he wanted to put his experience to work. He served 27 years in the U.S. Air Force as an engineer.
“I was a group commander in charge of 1,500 people and a $500 million construction program,” he said. “I have planned. I have budgeted. I have built. I have maintained infrastructure, and I have worked with local governments to ensure that what we did on our installations meshed with the community.”
The pair were joined in the spotlight by District 2 County Commission candidates Tammy Jo Brown, incumbent Bob Cole and Wallis Mahute. All five candidates were asked to respond to each question in 30 seconds.
Many of the questions submitted by the gathered voters focused on the county’s continued growth and need for infrastructure. Piech said infrastructure improvements are the greatest need for capital investment in the county.
“Without our infrastructure – our roads, our storm drains, safe sidewalks – we can’t get out kids to school safely. We can’t get our families to church safely,” Piech said. “We need to invest in our infrastructure and make a good capital investment that goes along with our economic development plan that brings all our plans together and help this county prosper.”
Williamson said that investment is being made. He pointed to $7 million worth of infrastructure projects currently in the works, largely paid for by a local option sales tax passed by voters in 2016.
“We are not where we want to be yet because we have lagged behind in investing in infrastructure for too long. We are all feeling the impacts of growth in our communities,” he said.
Another hot topic was economic development.
Piech said the first step is following the economic strategic plan in which the county just invested $120,000.
“I have gone around talking to business owners and asked them would they do it again. ‘No, the process is difficult, and I wouldn’t do it again,’” he said. “Leadership needs to get out there with the folks to make it easier. We should embrace small business and business.”
Williamson said he lets his experience as a small business owner guide his perspective.
“I have also worked with our Holley Navarre Water System to reduce tap fees by 50 percent to encourage business to come,” Williamson said.
He was referring to the “Navarre is Open for Business” campaign that ran Sept. 1, 2015 through Aug. 31, 2016. The program automatically decreased tap impact fees for new businesses on commercial properties. These fees can amount to tens of thousands of dollars for small businesses in Navarre.
The program would have reduced cost by 50 percent for businesses with more than 30 employees and by 25 percent for businesses with less than 30 employees.
Water system General Manager Paul Gardner said that not one business used the program during the year it was in place.
Williamson went on to say strengthening small business is key.
“We have to improve their quality of place. We need to do it through attraction, not promotion, by making sure we are creating a business-friendly county,” he said.
When asked about financial incentives for businesses to come, both candidates said no to up front financial assistance.
The implementation of impact fees for new development was also discussed. Williamson said he supports reduced impact fees.
Piech said he supports requiring developers to shoulder some of the burden of impact.
“That doesn’t necessarily equate to money. If we can partner with these developers to put sidewalks in or put curbs and bike paths in and work those impact fees not just in money,” Piech said.
This would have been the second time the pair met in debate, but Williamson was absent from another debate in April hosted by the Navarre Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. Also absent once again was District 2 candidate Kristopher Long.
The primary election will be held Aug. 28. Commissioners are elected by the county at large, rather than just the district they represent, and primary elections will be open to all registered voters, regardless of party affiliation, if the vote is decided on the primary ballot.
Voters have until July 30 to register or update voting information. Both can be done online at votesantarosa.com.
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Candidates will face off Aug. 28 on the primary ballot.