AVON PARK - The incumbents touted the city's growth and lower taxes, while the challengers called for increased efforts to attract business and a more open government, at Tuesday evening's Avon Park Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum at the Avon Park Community Center.
About 55 people turned out to see and hear the candidates, for mayor - incumbent Sharon Schuler and challenger Greg "Bubba" Warner, and for city council - incumbent Park Sutherland and challenger Jonathan Remick.
Schuler and Sutherland noted the city's annexation efforts, recycling program, lower government costs and lower taxes.
Sutherland said during his three years on the council, the property taxes were lowered 95 percent, utility rates have been lowered by 20 percent, the city started the only curb-side recycling program in the county and the city will be debt free in December.
He also noted the city's annexation efforts along U.S. 27 and Memorial Boulevard.
Warner and Remick had no qualms with the lower taxes and the general direction of the city, but did mention areas they believed could be improved.
Warner said he didn't agree with the once per week garbage pickup policy, calling it a service that was taken away.
The city had collected garbage two days a week, but changed to once a week garbage collection in November when the curb-side recycling program started with a once a week recycling pickup.
"There needs to be some type of program put together to bring more business to Avon Park," Warner said. "We've got to do something to fix downtown before we decide to put up archways and parks and things of that nature because if nobody is here nobody is going to see it."
Remick said he agreed that the council has done a lot.
"One big thing I heard a lot of from the town is they would like more channels of communication with the council," he said, suggesting town hall meetings, "open microphones" at the end of meetings and council meeting agendas set several days prior to the meeting so citizens will know to show up and voice their opinions.
Schuler said when she was elected to the city council in 1994, the city had tremendous debt, service delivery problems and high taxes.
"What we have done here is established a pattern of growth," she said. The city has four new businesses slated to open in the next month and three new businesses have opened in the past four months.
Responding to a question to the incumbents about the best decision or accomplishment during their tenure, Sutherland said the council's best decision was the hiring of Julian Deleon as city manager.
Deleon has saved the city an "immeasurable" amount of dollars and the city also earns money in ways that weren't anticipated, he said.
The candidates responded to a question about Deleon's job performance in light of a number of controversies involving the city and Deleon as city manager.
Remick said according to the city's charter the city manager is hired to follow the direction of the city council.
Deleon has done that and listened to the city council, he said.
"Personally, I think he is quite unprofessional in some of the city council meetings, laughing into the microphone, walking around while other people have the floor, but that said he has done some good things for the city," Remick said.
Schuler said Deleon has made great strides for the city.
Anytime someone has to make changes they will "make waves," she said. A lot of people are not happy with change.
"There are a few people out there who absolutely hate Julian," Schuler said. "They are apt to not be comfortable with anything that has been done."
Sutherland noted he already offered his position on the city manager.
Deleon could possibly adjust his "delivery," Sutherland suggested, but everyone could say that about a spouse or family member.
"Whatever might be his perceived shortcomings, it pales in comparison to the benefits he has provided," Sutherland said. "I have never seen a public official so vilified and attacked wrongfully, unethically. To his credit, each and every time there have been allegations raised, those allegations have been resolved in his favor."
Warner said, as a city employee, he has worked with Deleon.
"I see him a lot; he doesn't speak a lot; he is not a people person," he said. "What he has done for city is great, I have no problem with that whatsoever.
"As long as Julian continues to do the work that he does in the manner that he does it, there is no problem."
Following are some of the points the candidates made in their closing statements:
Schuler, "If I get reelected I am going to continue on with what I have been doing. If you are not happy with what I have done, don't vote for me. But if you are happy with the way we conducted our business and how we are moving the city forward then I would hope you would vote for me."
Sutherland said voters have a fairly easy decision.
"If you appreciate where government is - lower costs, lower taxes - that's the Schuler/Sutherland ticket, it's almost a combined ticket," he said. "If you don't like that and if you don't like us not reaching into your wallet, you potentially want more reaching into your wallet, then don't elect us."
Warner said he had 35 years in public experience and he is a problem solver.
He noted that he is 58 years old, married with four children, works in Avon Park and has lived in Avon Park for 28 years.
"I will be here until I die," Warner said. "I will work for you; I will serve you; that's what public servants do."
Remick noted he doesn't have the experience of being on a city council, but he has the education for the position with a master's degree in business.
"I do not have experience running a city, but I do have experience in a leadership position and in education and in business, which I think is beneficial to a city in every way," he said. "I am not planning on raising your taxes and I would love to lower your taxes, because if I do, I lower my taxes. So I will do everything in my power to lower all of our taxes."
Early voting starts Oct. 29 at the City Council Chambers.
Election Day for the Avon park council and mayoral races is Nov. 5.