Candidates say economy needs help from commission

Candidates say economy needs help from commission

By reporter Mike Wright, as published in the Citrus County Chronicle May 13, 2020:

Some say the county commission’s COVID-19 response is spot on.

Others aren’t so sure.

The Chronicle asked campaign challengers for Citrus County Commission Districts 3 and 5 their opinions on the county’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic locally, and what, if anything, the county commission can do to help businesses that were closed or scaled back since late March when Citrus had its first confirmed case.

All agreed with the county’s decision to ask Gov. Ron DeSantis to loosen restrictions in Citrus to allow restaurants, tattoo parlors and retail to open with 50% capacity.

But two candidates chided the board for not doing enough to work with local businesses that are struggling to survive.

Five of the six candidates who have announced campaigns have business backgrounds, either as owners or former owners. All candidates for county commission are Republicans.

Here’s how the candidates line up on the county’s COVID-19 response (District 1 Commissioner Jeff Kinnard is, so far, unopposed, with official ballot qualifying June 8-12).

DISTRICT 3

• Ruthie Schlabach, who co-owns a small business with her husband, said the county commission should be helping businesses with the ever-changing set of rules and guidelines coming from the governor’s office.

“We should have heard more from the county,” she said. “This is all new water for us. There’s a learning curve, I guess, but I felt like we as a business were having to find the answers ourselves. Maybe that’s the procedure. Maybe the county doesn’t owe us anything.”

Schlabach said the county’s message isn’t unified with the public’s urgency to return to some semblance of normalcy.

“I don’t think there’s a partnership,” she said. “They say let’s open it up, but don’t come to the county commission meetings. I think there’s contradictions right and left.”

• Mark Hammer, a carpenter who is president of the Citrus County Building Alliance, said the county is spot on in asking the governor to open up Citrus faster than urban areas. Beyond that, though, he doesn’t believe the county government has much role.

“I don’t think it’s the county government’s role to be involved in private businesses,” he said.

Hammer said business groups and Commissioner Scott Carnahan have led the efforts to urge the governor to allow more accelerated reopening of businesses in Citrus County.

“There needs to be more done to stimulate the economy,” he said. “As long as there are state guidelines in place, we’re limited what we can do.”

• Restaurant owner Angel Starr Lewis said at the least there should be discussions involving local government and business leaders to strategize what’s next.

“Everybody’s trying to make the best decisions,” she said. “Our businesses are fragile to begin with.”

Lewis acknowledged she doesn’t have a plan to restart the Citrus economy, but she believes one is attainable.

“We should be thinking outside the box,” she said. “If we all sat down together and put our brains together, we can come up with ways to help support businesses. Put our smartest people together for solutions. I thought that’s what county commissioners are supposed to do.”

• Retired Miami-Dade police officer Luis Marin supported the board’s response thus far.

“They’ve done a good job,” he said. “We need to open up a little bit faster. The businesses need to open.”

Marin said businesses are struggling to survive.

“I wish there was something we could do to help the small businesses,” he said. “I didn’t say I’ve got the answers to everything, but I’d be out there looking for them.”

• Edwin Roberts, a former business owner, is the only member of the public who continues attending county commission meetings even as the county is asking residents to stay away.

Roberts said the board is on the right track.

“To get the economy back going, you’ve got to open things up,” he said. “Let those who want to go out, go out, and let’s try that.”

Roberts said the county shouldn’t go beyond the governor’s guidelines.

“I don’t like the idea of opening some things without first getting the OK from the governor,” he said. “As long as they’re looking to get approval from the governor, I would be happy.”

DISTRICT 5

• Marketing consultant Holly Davis, who is challenging incumbent Jimmie T. Smith, said the county should have followed the report from a working group led by Commissioner Brian Coleman, which was reviewing plans to reopen county parks gradually. Instead, commissioners voted 3-2 two weeks ago to reopen county parks and beaches with no restrictions other than social distancing guidelines.

“It was a defacto task force whether the board put it together or not,” she said. “Those people spent a lot of time hashing out all the details. That was a really good plan and it was really vetted. It was a bad call to just throw out that out the window and reopen everything.”

Davis said she found it odd that Smith would recommend the creation of a task force leading into the reopening of parks and businesses, but then vote against Coleman’s plan.

“He was the one who called for a task force, and then turned on the working group,” she said. “He actually said he thinks everybody will just behave themselves in the parks and beaches. Beaches in general seem to incite people to not socially distance.”

Davis said the county can be more proactive in reducing the COVID-19 spread. She said the commission should require face masks worn in county buildings, and should consider a way to stop the influx of tourists from areas that have high numbers of cases.

“The bigger issue is how do we control how folks start pouring into this county,” she said. “If they’re coming in from areas of higher infection rates, we could see our numbers go up pretty quickly.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or [email protected].