As Winter Park’s two mayoral candidates try to thread the needle between political ideals in search of the most voter approval in a series of candidate forums this week, pay attention to what they have to say. The differences on the big issues with the most impact on the city may be slight enough to split with a razor.
Despite some broadly perceived differences between members of the City Commission, all have adopted a pattern of pushing fiscal conservancy. Likewise, both incumbent Mayor Ken Bradley and challenger Nancy Miles want to keep the budget tight and low on expenditures to avoid raising property taxes.
The political cliché of “It’s the economy, stupid” never has more teeth than in a recession. Despite the numbers coming out of Wall Street, we’re still feeling the crippling effects of the recession that allegedly lifted in the summer of 2009. Revenues are down everywhere, including property taxes as property values continue to sag.
At the local level, it’s easy to say we need to tighten our belts. That’s a mantra that’s almost universal. For one, cities don’t have the luxury of running budget deficits, at least not for long. If you lose revenue, you have to cut expenditures. And that’s exactly what’s been happening.
But listen carefully for what the candidates don’t say. Buried within the subtext of euphemistic terms like “efficiency” and “leanness” lay jobs that could be killed and employees that will be forced to take up the slack through more work, more pay freezes and a more expensive retirement plan. The implication there is that city employees are either not working hard enough already (despite the city’s professed pride in its quality of services), or they’re not worth what they’re paid.
Those types of cuts may be easy to make for commissioners who can afford to serve on the Commission due to lucrative careers outside of government, but for those actually affected by the cuts, they can be financially devastating.
And beyond that, despite a repeated pledge that we will not have reductions in service, the city has already pushed some services to their limits, stretching repaving schedules for its roads and floating the idea of making residents cut more trees themselves in the future.
Will either candidate have creative ideas for balancing the budget, or will they ask the city manager to balance it on the backs of city employees while letting some services slide?
In the end what the candidates are and aren’t saying may prove irrelevant. If Miles has her way, it’ll be about how they say it. She’s charging Bradley with having a rough temperament on the dais and claiming he’s removing residents from city decision making. Bradley maintains that he gives residents plenty of opportunity for input and doesn’t silence dissent during Commission meetings.
Will residents care more about what the mayor does, or how he or she does it? They’ll have two opportunities to find out, starting with the forum at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the city’s Public Library, then 8 a.m. Friday at the Welcome Center, and 11 a.m. at the Winter Park Towers.