Sumter County Administrator Bradley Arnold found himself on the hot seat on Tuesday night as he answered questions submitted by members of the Property Owners’ Association about the 25 percent tax hike that was approved by commissioners last month.
As soon as Arnold finished speaking during the POA’s monthly meeting before a packed-house crowd at Eisenhower Recreation Center, board member Cathy Peppers made an impassioned plea for the membership to get behind a movement to remove all five county commissioners, beginning with the three Villagers – Commission Chairman Don Burgess, Steve Printz and Al Butler – who are up for re-election next year.
The movement, titled “Fair Government 4 Sumter,” also seeks to repeal Villages Developer-backed One Sumter, which took affect in 2004 and allowed residents throughout the county to vote for all five commissioners instead of just by district.
Many of the POA members in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting were Sumter County residents who still were reeling from the sting of the large tax increase and commissioners’ later stance that “very few” residents complained about it. POA President Cliff Wiener had invited both Arnold and Burgess to speak at the meeting, but he said never got a response back from the commission chairman, who lives in the Village of Bonnybrook.
Arnold spent close to an hour talking about the reasons for the tax increase as it related to roads and infrastructure in the Southern Oaks portion of The Villages, as well as other areas of the county. The questions he was asked had been pre-submitted in writing and were asked by Wiener, Vice President Gerald Ferlisi and Peppers.
At one point, Village of Winifred resident Mary Megert stood up and asked for a clarification on one of Arnold’s answers pertaining to what other avenues of funding were considered instead of the 25 percent tax increase. But Wiener quickly intervened and demanded that Megert sit down. Wiener already had told the audience that Arnold would be treated with respect and there would be no outbursts. He also had pointed out that several Sumter County sheriff’s deputies were in attendance and anyone who got out of hand would be removed.
“I didn’t feel like I was out of order because I was following Robert’s Rules,” Megert said after the meeting. “I wasn’t there to make trouble, but it was early in the meeting and I thought if they’re going to ask a question and then let him give a non-answer, then why did we write questions down?”
One of the key points Arnold addressed was why commissioners didn’t address taxpayers’ concerns during two heated meetings that were held at the Savannah Center in September prior to final approval of the tax hike. He said part of the concern commissioners had was that if they engaged with each speaker, they may not have been able to address all of the input they received.
At the first meeting on Sept. 10, Arnold said that Printz started to address issues that were raised and was followed by Commissioner Doug Gilpin.
“The booing occurred and whatnot and he stopped,” Arnold said. “So, this is not a blame at all – so don’t take it that way – but I think the board ultimately felt that it may (have been) counterproductive to try to answer the questions that were raised during the public hearing and they simply moved forward.”
Arnold also addressed another issue that clearly irritated Villagers and other residents during the two public hearings – the fact that they were being hit with a tax increase while the five commissioners were going to see their salaries increase by 9.8 percent to more than $63,000 annually. While that rate is set by the state, Arnold was asked if commissioners could turn down those raises.
“That is true,” he said. “But the one thing you have to be cautious about is not everyone is retired. Some folks want to serve the people and they want to serve in an elected position. And they’re going to be making some sacrifices – potentially financially.”
Arnold said he once worked with a commissioner who sold insurance and after he voted for an unpopular zoning decision, he lost 20 of his customers.
“He made the right legal decision, but it financially impacted him,” Arnold said, adding that there’s “nothing illegal or immoral” about commissioners accepting their salaries. “To propose for someone to strip it or remove it, I think is a poor move because you will limit the candidacies that you might have in the future.”
The POA has a history of tackling tough issues facing Villagers. In March, Central Florida Health (CFH) President and CEO Don Henderson found himself on a similar hot seat alongside Villages Regional Hospital Chief Clinical Officer and Site Administrator Michael Pittman. The two were asked to answer hard questions at the meeting after the local hospital, which falls under the CFH umbrella along with Leesburg Regional Hospital, received a one-star rating from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.