INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — All eight candidates vying for three seats on the Indian River Board of County Commissioners mostly agree on what the big issues are facing the community, but their opinions on regional initiatives and the role of government in solving those problems differ.
One thing the two incumbents and six challengers all agreed upon Monday evening at a candidate forum hosted by the Indian River Tea Party is that the health of the Indian River Lagoon is of critical importance, not strictly for environmental reasons, but for the role the waterway plays in attracting tourists and in recreation opportunities for residents and visitors alike.
Differences of opinion lie in whether the county should continue on its “go it alone” path of projects, programs and regulations to combat the lagoon problem.
Commissioner Bob Solari, for example, said he thinks the county is doing just fine with current efforts to study, monitor and improve lagoon health, that no regional bureaucracy is needed to get the job done. Countering Solari is former Sebastian mayor and current Councilman Richard Gillmor, who expressed strong support for the Indian River Lagoon Council, a group formed last year that County Commissioners opted not to join, but that the City of Sebastian joined as a municipal partner.
Another behemoth problem that every candidate on the stage acknowledged as a major issue was the All Aboard Florida train project. Candidates varied, though, on their level of support for the county’s commitment of 1 percent of the budget to fund attorney and consultant fees to battle All Aboard Florida at every possible juncture.
Several candidates brought up the county’s recent victory in federal court, reversing a previous ruling that would have stopped an effort to challenge the legality of the Federal Rail Administration’s decision to allow the issuance of government-backed “private activity bonds” before all the many concerns raised by the project’s Environmental Impact Statement had been addressed. That glimmer of hope for the county caused a consensus of well-wishing, with the caveat of keeping an eye on the mounting legal bills, and the effectiveness of the efforts going forward.
While Commissioner Tim Zorc’s challengers are slightly more leery of spending millions fighting the train, Zorc reminded the audience gathered at Vero’s Heritage Center Monday night that every year the 32 trains per day speeding 110 mph are not running through Indian River County, taxpayers save money. “We might be spending $800,000 per year on legal fees, but we’re saving $2.5 million a year in maintenance contracts,” Zorc said, explaining that local governments must foot a share of the bill of maintaining the tracks, crossings and right of ways.
A lengthy discussion erupted about whether or not county tax dollars should be doled out to local nonprofit organizations. The money awarded via a grant process now is a tiny portion of the county budget, but it does help prop up children’s services and other social service needs. Most of the candidates either expressed lukewarm support for limited spending on nonprofits, but the starkest comparison exists in the race for the district encompassing the City of Vero Beach and much of the barrier island.
Vero Mayor Jay Kramer said the voters should be afforded the opportunity to vote in a referendum and approve direct expenditures for children’s services, to take the matter away from the political whim of whomever fill the five seats on the county commission. Solari, on the other hand, said the funding of nonprofits with tax dollars “weakens” the recipient organizations, and that private citizens should investigate charitable organizations and give money of their own free will as donations.
The race for Zorc’s seat, which is being sought by the incumbent plus challengers Joe Earman, Charles Kirby and Mark Rodolico, will be decided at the Republican primary on Tuesday, as will the race between Fellsmere Mayor Susan Adams and Gillmor for the seat being vacated by Commissioner Wesley Davis, who is running for Property Appraiser. The victor of the Solari-Kramer contest will face nonpartisan candidate, former Vero councilman Brian Heady in November.