The eight candidates running in local Flagler County races met Wednesday, Oct. 12, at the Palm Coast Community Center for a final Free For All political forum to discuss the issues.
The forum was hosted by the Palm Coast Observer and broadcasted live on WNZF News Radio, with CEO David Ayres.
Brian McMillan, the former executive editor to the Observer, and Greg Blosé, Palm Coast Flagler Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, moderated the two-hour forum, and candidates were given two minutes to introduce themselves to the audience and one minute to answer questions.
Because of time constraints, one of the prepared questions — on affordable housing — was cut, and candidates were told to send in their notes to the Observer as a letter to the editor. An edited transcript from the event is below.
WILL FURRY (School Board, District 2)
Will Furry has been endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, State Rep. Paul Renner, the 1776 Project, and school board member-elect Christy Chong.
Furry has lived in Flagler County since 2013 with his wife and two young children, who attend Old Kings Elementary and Indian Trails Middle. Furry has two decades of executive and entrepreneurial business experience. He said he is involved in the community through a local mission team and through humanitarian trips to South America. He mentors kids at Epic Church.
Furry said he stands for “freedom and liberty, and parental sovereignty,” not lockdowns or mandates. Student safety is his number one priority he said, and he supports the school guardian program. He said he prioritizes parents’ rights, curriculum transparency, morals and values from the home, and enriching classroom environments. He aims to raise reading scores and the get the district’s grade back up to an A.
COURTNEY VANDEBUNTE (School Board, District 2)
Courtney VandeBunte is an educator and a lifelong Flagler County resident. VandeBunte has won the Teacher of the Year Award in Flagler County and is a curriculum developer for Harvard University’s LabXChange Program. She is a mother of three children in Flagler Schools.
She said she believes in transparency and be a voice for the voiceless, but believes parents’ voices are among the most important. She said she is a “strong advocate for parental rights” and will make decisions with parents in mind.
VandeBunte said she has been endorsed by former city of Palm Coast council members Bob Cuff and Jack Howell, current school board member Cheryl Massaro and school board member-elect Sally Hunt; former schools deputy superintendent Lynette Shott; retired Flagler Schools administrator Dr. Ken Gridley; Florida Schools professional support staff; Flagler Beach Mayor Susie Johnston; the Palm Coast Observer.
JANE GENTILE-YOUD (County Commission, District 4)
Jane Gentile-Youd came to Flagler County in 2002 and said she has been advocating for residents since she got here.
Gentile-Youd said her political career began when her roof collapsed in 1980, and she found out her roof had never been inspected.
She said she won at court and then in the appellate court, and “the building industry was changed.”
Gentile-Youd’s track record for public service, she said, includes getting guardrails and trees added to the Old Dixie Bridge in Flagler.
In Dade County, she said, one example of her work was stopping a “non-existent company from getting a $2 million HUD rehabilitation bid.”
CORRECTION: The text above has been changed to state that Gentile-Youd moved to Flagler County in 2002. An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that she had moved to Palm Coast.
LEANN PENNINGTON (County Commission, District 4)
Leann Pennington is a native Floridian and has lived in Flagler County for almost 30 years. She has worked with clients like Goldman Sachs and Fidelity and is currently chief broad strategist at the Canadian firm, TD Bank.
Pennington said her immediate family grew up and live in Flagler County. She is married, and she and her husband have a 17-year-old son.
Pennington said she is committed to protecting and preserving farms in Flagler, and wants to make sure that they remain in the hands of farmers and those interested in protecting and raising crops. She said farms are vital not just to the Flagler community but to the United States, and that she wants to ensure that they have representation in the county. Pennington said she was recently endorsed by Congressman Michael Waltz.
CATHY HEIGHTER (Palm Coast City Council, District 4)
Cathy Heighter has lived in Palm Coast since 2005. She said she quickly fell in love with Palm Coast, which she called “the most beautiful, clean city” she has ever seen, and immediately wanted to serve her community.
Heighter is from New York, and the mother of two children.
Her youngest son died in Iraq in 2003 while serving in the 101st Airborne Division. Heighter then spearheaded a movement to increase the death benefit given to military families.
She said she will be committed to Palm Coast and stands on honesty, integrity, commitment and understanding.
FERNANDO MELENDEZ (Palm Coast City Council, District 4)
Fernando Melendez moved to Palm Coast five years ago from New York with his wife of 28 years and their 26-year-old son.
He said they fell in love with the city’s “second-to-none” quality of life.
His focus in his campaign is preserving the spirit of Palm Coast, which he says makes it so special.
Melendez said he wants to protect Palm Coast’s natural beauty and resources, but also aspects of the city itself, like family events, safety and low taxes.
Melendez said he is committed to getting residents “exceptional government services” to continue and grow the city’s quality of life.
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI (Palm Coast City Council, District 2)
Theresa Carli Pontieri has been an attorney for seven years and co-owns a small business with her husband, a fire service lieutenant. She’s a daughter of a veteran and sister to two active military members, she said.
Pontieri said family is extremely important to her and that she loves the family environment in Palm Coast. She hopes to help the community grow in a positive, enriching way, hopefully by adding young families to the community.
Pontieri said she wants to point Palm Coast in the right direction as it undergoes tremendous growth and change, shaping the city’s future.
ALAN LOWE (Palm Coast City Council, District 2)
Alan Lowe came to Palm Coast almost 40 years ago to work for his father. Now, he said, he’s been a small business owner for 35 years, and has lived in District 2 for 33 years. “Funnily enough, that’s almost longer than my opponents been alive,” he said. He said he owns two U.S. patents, a testament to his problem solving abilities.
He opposes tax increases and said he supports first responders. He said the city needs to take advantage of its growth to diversify its tax base and support economic development. Lowe said that he believes it’s important to interact with the community and will continue hosting community meetings if he is elected.
How do you think the county, or the city or the School Board ...prepared for and responded to Hurricane Ian?
I think that they did a good job. They were transparent in their communication during Hurricane Ian, announcing to parents and families when and how information would be released.
They designated and prepared certain schools and shelters and waited an appropriate amount of time to announce when schools were going to close ... and they even embedded hurricane days into the school calendar. ... But one thing that we need to keep in mind for the future is helping those students that were hit hard and don’t have hot water or means to clean their laundry.
I too think the School Board, the school district, did an exceptional job in their response. They listened to the emergency management guidance and responded quickly. I feel that the communication was great with parents; as a parent, we received word that they were going to be closing it down.
... Just the task of getting the schools ready to be a shelter; I mean, they have to just kind of turn it on a dime like that. And then once the storm was over, they had to do the same thing ... So kudos to Flagler schools for handling it in an exceptional way.
I believe that the communication and coordination were the key to Palm Coast during this hurricane. It really goes to show the importance of early preparedness of our cities. To have all the emergency personnel in place to have all the city staff in place; it was just incredible the way they did it. ... So I think, overall, excellent job. I give them an A+ rating.
I’ve been here through three hurricanes since I’ve been here in Palm Coast: Matthew, Irma and also Ian that just passed. And I would definitely say that the city is always prepared ahead of time. ...
They’re prepared so that they have places for families to go should they have to be evacuated from their homes. I know several people that have gone to the schools and stayed there for shelter. Family members, friends. So I believe that they did, the city has done, an excellent job in preparing.
It was interesting, because the track of the hurricane at times was right over the top of us. And so the city was left running backwards and forwards trying to figure out which way it was going to go. But in the end, I believe they did a fantastic job. We had some minor flooding in areas, such as The Woodlands, but I think it was a learning curve. And I think the city learned a lot but A+, too.
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI
What I was most impressed with as far as our city and our county goes is how well each department was able to work with one another to make things happen for our citizens. For instance, I don’t know if a lot of people realize this, but Parks and Rec actually provided childcare to a lot of our workers so that they can work in the city in the county and do their job for all of our wonderful residents.
Another example is that the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office actually provided, through the inmate work program, inmates to help the stormwater division with their sandbag deployment. ... Their help was vital, and it was a way for our county to also be fiscally responsible as well and save money on labor and really provide an outlet for these gentlemen to do some work in the community. So I just really was impressed with the inter departmental work that our county and our city was able to accomplish.
So, I think our county, unfortunately, we’re getting pretty good at getting ready for storm prep, because we keep having so many storms. They did an excellent job on social media updating us prior to and after the storm. ... After the hurricane, as soon as it was safe to go, they were in the air assessing areas.
We had a lot of roads wash out in the west. They were out there in the next day with crews ... regrading roads and doing gravel. ... Two things I did notice, that I’d like to address, was I think we need to continue to track where we flood the most, and then be more proactive prior to storms. ... The other thing is, I’ll say this about the sandbag lines: incredibly helpful. I would like to see us maybe double down on where we open up sandbag locations, especially in the areas that are kind of prone to flooding. We only had one open in the west.
I agree with Leann, a lot of issues on the hurricane. [Emergency Management Director] Jonathan Lord was trying to do his very, very best. And I do agree we did need more sandbag locations. And I would like to see in the future ... some more volunteers.
There was an instance — it did not happen in Flagler County, and I pray to God it never does — there was an elderly couple. The wife was, I think, 82, and the husband was 94. And they didn’t have a generator and their oxygen didn’t work and they both died. So I would like to see, if I’m elected or even not elected, I would like to see one of our services make sure that we have a facility for people who are on dialysis and oxygen because we do have kind of an older population here. That’s the one thing that I would like to see improved. Thank you.
Editor’s note: the deaths Mrs. Gentile-Youd mentioned occurred in Sarasota County. The two people were not married, related or living together, but did die after losing power and access to their oxygen tanks. The man was 94 and the woman 80, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Flagler County’s special needs shelter provides power for medical devices during hurricanes.
[Editor's note: the incident Mrs. Gentile-Youd mentioned is likely one that happened in Sarasota County. The two elderly residents were not married, related or living together, but did die after losing power and access to their oxygen tanks. The man was 94 and the woman 80, all according to the Herald-Tribune.]
Economists predict Flagler County’s population could be as high as 160,000 residents by 2030. Considering this is a growing County, how have the current elected officials handled growth?
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI
So what I would like to see our city specifically engaged in is making sure we’re focusing on infrastructure and we’re being proactive knowing that we’re looking at that type of growth. It’s very important that we ensure we have road safety, and we have the resources that we need and knowing that we’re going to be welcoming so many more residents. ...
We need to be proactive and really start setting monies aside now ... making sure that the projects that we invest in are for the betterment of our future from an infrastructure standpoint. If we don’t have a strong base, we cannot grow a strong city. We can’t attract good businesses, and that’s not going to help our tax base diversify, and really take pressure off of the homeowners in the long run.
One of the things that I’ve noticed is that our city council was not overly engaged in our budget process this year. And one of the things that was discussed was the lack of monies over the past few years for infrastructure improvements such as road repair. And I think as we grow, we need to make sure that we have a sufficient budget to take care of what we have as we go forward.
Another thing that I think needs to really happen is we need to balance growth with economic development. ... So we need to balance economic development with growth. And I think that the City Council in the future is going to do more work with budgeting to make sure we have the resources to take care of all of them.
... With the growth coming in as quickly as it is now, there are several issues that will need to be addressed. First of all, we need to make sure that our infrastructure is up to par to carry the load of the traffic.
We also need to make sure that our Fire Department, Police Department, Sheriff’s Department are equipped to handle any incidences or occurrences that might happen within the city,
...Just a couple of years ago, we had a 3% interest rate, and we had a much lower inflation. Today we have an 8% interest rate with an inflationary economy. Will we see that growth? That question was posed with one big word, OK? It’s a maybe. ...
So what I’m saying is, and I’ve been pounding the table on this, we need to get out there and bring outside money back to Palm Coast, so that we don’t have to depend on the tax base of our residential homeowners.
I really don’t think recently that the County Commission has handled growth properly. I’m very disappointed when I see this consent agenda and things just going flying by, allowing builders to come into a community and build — I’m not talking about 20, 30 homes, I’m talking about hundreds of homes— without doing infrastructure studies that I was used to seeing in South Florida. ...
We’re just saying, ‘OK, this is vacant land, people are moving in, let’s just put houses here.’ That needs to stop.
That is a hard question to answer in just a minute. But with that being said, right now, three things come to mind. One is we’re missing out on grant money at the state and the federal level to bring in broadband and more infrastructure. ... The second thing is we were really late to the party with impact fees in the county, especially school impact fees. We didn’t get to it till this year after a lot of growth had taken place.
And third, I got to say that we somehow ... missed the mark on commercial, we literally got none of it into our county. And here we are, again with the burden of paying it as a resident. We could have done a better job at growth. I’d love to see a long-term planning board talk about what’s going to come in here. And then I’d like to make sure that we are incrementally pacing impact fees ... matching market and inflation rates as we go along, so that we don’t have big surprises.
The School Board has responded to this already. One way they responded was to eliminate some of the overcrowding in our elementary schools, move the sixth graders into middle school, and that was effective. ... Also, they’ve worked with the developers to work out the impact fees. ...
Where I think I really bring value here is, the School Board is ... a lot of business happens on the School Board. ... I had over a decade of experience in the mortgage banking business, and I’m in real estate, and we’re going to have to start locating real estate to build new schools to handle this growth in the near future. It’s about identifying where the growth is going to be.
I think our current School Board members have handled the projected growth well, as it is one of the rare issues that they all agreed upon, with the need for a new middle and a new high school in the future.
They agreed that third-party surveys were needed to show that growth was projected when discussing the increasing of the impact fees with the Board of County Commission. And the way the impact fees are now set, allows for growth to result in an increased impact fee annually, which is very beneficial to the district regarding this new construction, and allows us to cautiously plan in the off chance that growth slows again.
But something I would do differently if elected would be to advocate for increased transparency between the school district and the other local governing boards.
I attended a few meetings where the new interlocal agreement was being worked out, and there were a few times where it seemed as though transparency was lacking. And eventually, you know, all the cards were laid out on the table and a new interlocal agreement was met. But it took some time, and I think some of that time could have been saved with increased transparency.
How will the county ... continue to afford the increases in costs for law enforcement?
I think residents have really grown accustomed to living in a very safe county. We’re very accustomed to a high service level out of our police officers and our first responders. They’re very immediate. If you lived in Jacksonville, Florida, you’d be waiting two to four hours outside of an emergency to get a police officer to respond.
I think that funding has to remain a priority. ... The city had proposed possibly a safety impact fee going forward, and development to kind of offset the cost of adding to fleet, adding officers, their uniforms and stuff. I think that’s a very good idea. It has a lot of merit. I think we need to expand upon that.
I’ve been a lot misquoted lately; I think our deputies are number one, and they’re the people who interact with us and they deserve good salaries. We are very top-heavy. The sheriff has 18 commanders and six chiefs all together, altogether getting paid $2,228,000. This is as of a year ago.
Deputies are supposed to be five deputies to one supervisor. We have two deputies to one supervisor. We have a lot of extraneous, unnecessary fat. The sheriff ... was going to sue the county to get his budget. The sheriff should be paying his deputies with the money he is wasting on overstaffing unnecessary commanders and chiefs.
We don’t need 18 commanders with an average salary of $90,000 and average chiefs with $100,000, and complaining there’s no money for deputies. Please contact me on this issue. I’ve got a lot more homework. But we do need deputies; the sheriff needs to pay them what they deserve.
Editor’s note: According to the FCSO, the Sheriff’s Office has 186 deputies and 34 law enforcement supervisors and managers (not including the sheriff), and each Community Policing Division supervisor typically oversees six to 12 deputies.
Unfortunately, because of the way the budget is — you know, set by the state — the school districts will need to continue to get creative with their resources to afford increased costs for law enforcement. And some ways this could be done is by getting us back to an A, so we are eligible for something called “A+ funds.” And another way would be with the successful renewal of the half-penny sales tax which you will all see in your ballots on Nov. 8.
Yesterday, I attended a very informative lunch put on by the Flagler Ed Foundation at Matanzas High School. And when I walked in, I was immediately impressed by the increased security measures that were paid for by previous half-cent .... with the renewal of the half penny sales tax this November, Flagler schools can upgrade that equipment ... so that we’re doing everything in our power to keep our kids safe. Because kids can’t learn unless they feel safe and unless they are safe.
School safety has always been at the top of the priorities for my campaign, and I’ve been advocating for a program called the Guardian Program. And we’re blessed to have school resource officers on every school campus. But our campuses are big, and they can’t be everywhere at once. ...
Again, the half-penny sales tax is so important that we renew that, because safety is one of the things that we can spend that money on and I’m sure everybody here would say a half a penny is worth the safety of our children.
What I think we need to look at, to start with, is the increase in population. As was mentioned, the safety impact fee. People moving here, developers building, should be responsible for the increased costs of those things. ... Currently, it’s approximately 92% of the property tax base is off the residents’ back, with 8% on commercial property.
I think we need to increase ... our economic development so that we can shift some of the burden over to commercial, so that we can use that money to increase our — or to take care of our — expanding sheriff’s department, our expanding Fire Department, and so forth.
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI
We’re currently a very safe county for a reason, and [it] in large part has to do with the way our Sheriff’s Office has been run. So I have to respectfully disagree with Mrs. Gentile-Youd.
I will say that I do agree that our deputies deserve to be paid a very good wage. And the reason for that is that if we are losing our deputies to neighboring counties, we are having to pay more money to train more deputies. ... So if you really want to save money, we really need to support our Sheriff’s Office with the equipment they need and the wages for the deputies so that we can keep them rather than training them and then watching them leave for another county.
So I’d like to do two things here. One is ask a follow up to Theresa, and then also have Jane have a chance to respond. I want to ask Theresa ... about how can we afford it? And then, to Jane ... is there a problem with having the deputies leave?
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI
I do agree that there should be an impact fee that is directly related to public safety. Absolutely. And matter of fact, there was just discussion in the interlocal agreement yesterday regarding impact fees for EMS and for emergency services, police, etc. So yes, that’s a very practical solution.
And as we’re bringing in more people, people don’t realize that actually, a lot of our income this past year came from the new development. ... I think about 20% of our revenue actually came from that, so we can get a very large amount of money by having an impact fee specifically for safety.
Well, I’ve been falsely accused of not supporting the deputies. I brought up the fact that we’re top-heavy. We don’t need 18 commanders and six chiefs getting over $100,000 a year and paying our deputies $52,000 a year. We need to unload some of these higher command officers and hire more deputies.
The sheriff gets the budget; he got a budget much bigger than he was supposed to get. ... We had to take money out of transportation, or he threatened to sue. We need the money for deputies. He decides on what to pay the deputies. He decides what to pay 18 commanders and six chiefs, which is unnecessary.
Our public safety is provided by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. And the Sheriff’s Office receives funding from a variety of revenues and revenue streams, including our local public funds.
... In my book, defunding does not exist. In my book, what exists is that we continue to provide quality of life. And it doesn’t happen if we don’t have that main component, which is quality public safety. So, remember, ad valorem tax is the single largest revenue that goes into our general fund, and with the growth, that’s how we intend to continue providing our public safety and funding our police.
Being a avid supporter of our armed forces, our first responders, our sheriffs and police department, I feel that neither one of these agencies should go underfinanced, undersupported and underfunded.
We should always make sure that we are able to fund these agencies because they are the ones that keep our communities safe. ... Impact fees will help. Being in real estate, I know impact fees bring a large amount of funding into the community. So this is what we need to do to make sure that our agencies are adequately funded. We need to look into those sources.
Taxes – County and City Council candidates
If you were on the board, would you have voted for the tax increase?
(This question was posed only to County Commission and City Council candidates, since school boards in Florida have little say over school taxes, which are set at the state level.)
No. For ad valorem taxes, as Alan [Lowe] said, residential, we pay 85% of the taxes and vacant land owners pay almost zero. We have a lot of vacant land that’s sold ... and then all of a sudden, this land goes from timberland into, you know, 6,000 units an acre. ...
But the tax burden is on the residential homeowners, and that needs to stop. The taxes need to be balanced. Commercial businesses need to pay — I don’t want to chase away development, but they have to pay their share, and vacant land needs to be taxed appropriately.
... Economic development has gone simply awry here. We don’t have a diversified tax base. We needed to do a better job at that.
Our county administration needs to be in the mindset of cutting the budget, as we’re cutting back at home and in our lives. ... When asked to cut the budget recently, because we rolled back a tenth of a mill. They cut things like carpet, a matching carpet they wanted for the county government buildings. These are things we can live without. ...
Unless we bring more commercial in here, we are not going to get social services funded properly, capital improvements funded properly. So we need a government that’s going to bring a bigger commercial base.
I would not have voted for the tax increase. And I say that because I feel that our people here in the city and Palm Coast are being taxed out of Palm Coast. We are in very difficult times. Homes are becoming unaffordable to a lot of people that live here in the city.
Prices are increasing all the time taxes are going up. And I just think that it’s too much on families.
We are living in the highest inflationary economy that we’ve seen in the last 20 years, maybe more. ... Everything has gone up for the city. Unlike many of the residents, I sat through the budget workshops; I sat through the readings, two days of them, and business meetings.
If you do not attend these meetings, do not come out at the last minute after the final say is done without really knowing what’s going on. Because the truth of the matter is the presentation was there, day after day. They did not find the fat. We have to balance. We were going to lose some — either we lose some services, or we don’t. ... They held the tax flat as last year, meaning the 3% cap [on tax increases for homesteaded properties].
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI
I’m a very strong conservative, especially when we’re talking about monies, especially when we’re talking about taxpayers money. ... But I do think that we need to start from a place of truth, and transparency. There was not a 15% tax increase. The millage rate is exactly the same as it was last year, but because people’s property values went up, the amount of money that they paid in taxes went up as well.
What we can do at budget workshops [is] to really go back and forth with the city and challenge them to save money, challenge them to be more fiscally conservative ... rather than looking for ways to unreasonably roll back to a millage rate that we just can’t afford while providing the services we need.
Our city budget this year coming up is over a quarter of a billion — that’s with a B — dollars; $328 billion, plus. The increase in property value, if nothing had changed, was $5 million, if I remember correctly.
So what didn’t happen and needs to start right now, in my opinion, is that individually, the City Council members needs to start going to the department heads and asking for their needs and their wants ... so that when the presentations come forward, they know if there is areas to cut or if there isn’t areas to cut.
And, you are correct, under homesteaded, it’s a 3% increase. However, if you own rental property, if you’re a renter, if you own commercial property, your taxes go up approximately 10%, which means rents are going up, expenses are going up and so forth.
School rating (School Board candidates only)
Flagler Schools is no longer rated at “A” as a whole, so why not, and how can we fix it?
One of the primary reasons why we are not an A school is that we have a problem with the amount of kids that are at grade-level reading. We have a huge deficiency there that we need to solve. And also, some of the scores that are coming in are really lacking ... for the kids with learning disabilities. And the ESE program, exceptional student education, is responsible for helping some kids with that, giving them extra accommodations.
But I believe that department has been failing our students and our parents. ... I just think it’s about training. I think we need to focus on early learning. My son has an IEP [individualized education program], as I mentioned earlier, and I think if the teachers were properly trained, when he was in first grade, to identify some of the problems that we later discovered, we would have been ahead of it rather than trying to catch him up. So, I think training down there to not only for that, but also to tell parents about the accommodations that are available.
I think that we dropped from an A to B because of COVID and remote learning. And now that those days are behind us, it’s imperative that Flagler Schools continues to follow the goals that they’ve set in their comprehensive strategic plan, which can be viewed on their website. In their first goal of academics, they aim to increase those math and reading gains by using research-based strategies along with rigorous targeted instruction, which I agree with.
However, I think we need to improve our efforts drastically, since the pandemic resulted in drastic decreases in reading and math levels. I would like to see increased tutoring opportunities at all grade levels, with after-school transportation to go with it. ...
We need to reallocate the funds to pay multiple teachers for multiple subjects across all grade levels so that we can get back up to an A and get those A-plus funds.
Decorum on the dais
By attending government meetings yourself, what have you learned about working together as a board to get things done on behalf of the residents?
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI
Well, the residents in large part have lost faith in their City Council. And that's sad, because we are supposed to work for you and you should always have faith in the people that are supposed to be representing you and working for you. I can tell you that as an attorney, obviously, I walk into a courtroom, and I have an opponent every single time almost that I do, and it is my job to be professional with my opposing counsel and it's my job to be professional with the judge.
And I almost 100% of the time disagree with my opposing counsel, but it is incumbent upon me as a sworn member of the Florida bar to be respectful and to not only be respectful to them, but to their position. ... We need to get back to the issues and not engage in personal attacks but engage in actual problem solving, based on the facts and the issues in front of us.
What I've learned in two years of going to almost every city council meeting and the budget meetings ...We have a communication problem between the people up on the dais. A recent survey from this last spring said that the general public — us — has a 32% approval rating of our city council; that's a 68% approval rating. That's abysmal. People do not trust, have no faith in, and are upset with the way City Council is run.
I've been in business in Palm Coast, as I mentioned earlier, for 35 years and with that comes the understanding of how to approach people that are unruly, unreasonable and have a different opinion without losing temper without losing composure and being able to negotiate, discuss and come to a mutual understanding. And that is what we need to start having on city council to improve our 32% approval rating.
If we are called to duty to make decisions for this city and being a part of city council, we should be on this board and act amongst each other with honesty, integrity, and with respect. There should be no arguments going on on the dais or in the public eye.
We should be able to respect each other, um, take the issues, talk about them, communicate and get the issue solved so that they are all in the best interest interests of the city and the residents that live in the city of Palm Coast. That's my stance on it. I would be there to serve, not to go and get someone that's on the — that sits on the dais on the board of city council, but to solve our problems together as a team.
What I have learned while attending these meetings is that without thoughtful collaboration, there's no way that we could end up with some concessions. I mean, we have to work together. ... We could agree to disagree but never go at it in the way I've seen. I've had my shares of going to those meetings and walking out of there in shock of what I’ve seen.
And that's put us at a bad place with nearby cities, nearby counties. ... District 4 has seen one our representative stand up, walk out of that dies and disappear for six weeks. That is not going to happen with me. I will never do that and will always show respect to everyone that's in that building and to my constituents. Thank you.
I have attended several school board meetings, workshops, and ... I've been on several boards throughout the years of my business career. I was actually on the Chamber of Commerce board in South Florida at one point. And you know, what I think makes a great board is you have a group of people with different backgrounds, diversity of thought, but with one common goal.
And it, for this board, the common goal is to have exceptional education for our children here in Flagler County. So I believe in was civil discourse at times. Not everyone's going to get their way but we have to find some common ground. And if we do that we focus on the kids. In the end, parents win and kids win.
I've learned what not to do. I've learned to listen to all voices in our community and that all voices deserve to be listened to. I've learned how important it is to follow the pre-existing policies and procedures. I've learned the importance of asking questions.
I learned that our kids are watching the examples that we set, and that we need more way more mutual respect and unity. And lastly, I've learned that we all want the same thing, the best education for our kids, but we need to unite together, put our personal beliefs aside and make decisions that are in their best interests.
I’m glad you asked that question. I think it's very important that input from residents is heard. If I am elected, the first thing I'm going to do is try to eliminate this three-minute rule and allow citizens to speak for up to five minutes. ... We're there to represent the citizens, not vice versa.
I also plan to hold meetings after each commission meeting and then be able to report back to the commissioners at the next meeting what my constituents want. Because we get elected to represent you not ourselves and when we don't share everything with the public, and we shut you up after three minutes — we're really not going to get where we need to get. And we have been more civil than the Palm Coast but I'd like to see it be better than it is.
Your job as a government elected official, I think, is to ... drop your personal feelings, your egos, your future political career ambitions, your special interest right at the door, and get in there and have meaningful dialogue about what you're getting ready to vote for. You need to be in there talking with each other, asking questions ... having discussions about long term impacts and the decisions you're getting ready to make.
And that's how you govern more effectively. And certainly if you were in a corporate environment you wouldn't last you know pretty long with a behavior that comes out of our boards here locally. So, I really want to see people you know getting along, being more respectful of each other and realize that they are there for us the residents and the better good of us and not to serve their interest.
What is a service at the school or city or county that you feel as being underfunded or underserved that you would maybe advocate for in the next budget cycle if you’re if you’re elected?
So I think it’s extremely important for us to look at our infrastructure and our stormwater department. Flooding was a minor issue that happened during Hurricane Ian, the city did an excellent job at looking out for it. But if you call in for a swale issue, not during the hurricane, but in general, you can wait up to two or three years... I think we need to increase our stormwater department. If we’re looking at an underfunded department, I think it’s that. We need to get out there and take better control and better care of our swale system and our drainage system with more people more equipment and be able to be proactive, instead of fixing it after failure.
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI
So I agree with my opponent that the stormwater division does need some more funding. They’ve been doing a great job. Anybody who’s lived here for a long time knows that the swales are operating at a much better pace than they used to in the past. ... I don’t know if you all realize it, but we have over 1200 miles of swales in this city and they can only get to about 30 miles a year, with their maintenance. So we need more crews we do need more equipment.
But in addition to the stormwater we also need to really focus on our roads. ... We have got to start spending the money now before it becomes three times more expensive in the future, especially knowing that we are going to be welcoming new people to our city and our county. If we don’t start fixing these roads now, we’re going to have some serious problems.
So I will also echo those same sentiments because I keep hearing over and over again that we only got two swale groups out there, right. Am I correct? I think that’s it. Don’t quote me if I’m wrong, but I believe that’s what it is. We need to add at least another one in next couple of years because the swales are a disaster, especially when we have builders building next to it. ...
The second, I believe, group department that needs some more hiring, I believe is the code enforcement. Code enforcement was the only department that I saw during the budget that did not get a hire, or anybody else to work in that department. I think we need, we really got to work in those two departments. And I think that will increase our quality of life overall, if we do that. Thank you.
I’d like to say that I agree with everyone on the swale issues here in Palm Coast. I’ve had several friends and family members that have gone through issues with the swales. ... Also, our Sheriff’s Department — I have spoken to some of the young men that work for the Sheriff’s Department. And they have said to me, Cathy, we left because we could not afford to be poor anymore. So, I feel that our deputies deserve a higher rate of pay.
So I felt that that’s underfunded and should be funded more so that we can keep our deputies here because they are part of what keeps this city safe. ... And lastly, code enforcement. Code Enforcement is a big issue with me, because I love this city. And I love to see the city clean, and I’ve had issues myself with it. So code enforcement needs to be looked at closely and be funded better.
So while there are many things that I would want to look at, and next year will be very tough as it is the lowest budget Flagler schools will operate on in 10 years, I would have to say more resources for those students performing below grade level that we mentioned earlier, such as after school tutoring.
Because if we’re going to make up for this decrease in learning these past few years, we need to increase the number of opportunities for after school tutoring. ... But I know this won’t be easy considering the decrease in the budget but it is absolutely necessary. And if the money and resources is put into more tutoring and extra resources for those students that are performing below grade level, then we were more likely to get back to an A get that A-plus funding that I keep talking about.
So I also think we need to invest a little bit more in our ESE program and those areas that are going to help our youth get caught up to grade level. But we do have some other things that are pressing as well that are underfunded, that’s our transportation department and our security... a way that we can help to mitigate that is, again, by renewing the halfpenny sales tax because these can be used for transportation and security.
I’ve been to board meetings and heard that they want to buy new buses and that’s where the money can likely come from. And if we want that Guardian program, it can come from there from there as well. And I want to remind everybody, this is a renewal of this tax. It’s not a new tax we’re already paying it’s a renewing something we’re already doing.
One of the things that got cut this year was ... the economic development. Again, we used to fund economic development ... and then they decreased funding for it. You know, I look at things that we clearly need funding for ... but I don’t see a clear-cut path to getting there and not raising resident taxes unless we bring in commercial and diversify the base.
... We need to bring back funding into our economic development. Start prioritizing how to incentivize businesses... and what kind of incentives we can do and layer funding into that so we can, you know, diversify the tax base. And that will solve a lot of our issues with affordable housing, funding social services without burdening residents.
First of all, once again, our deputies are wonderful. They’re starting at around $52,000 a year. Other communities is starting higher. The sheriff again decides. ... It’s up to him to pay the deputies not the county. They deserve more money. He’s overstepping his big boys.
Our fire department is very much underfunded. There has not been a new fire station built in years. Our firefighters have old equipment. We do not have 24/7 on our helicopter. I am lobbying right now for another $350,000 So our fire chief can hire two more paramedic pilots. We don’t have a trauma center, we need our fire helicopter being able to fly 24/7. We need broadband out west and we must give money back to our transportation budget.
What have you learned from talking to people on the campaign trail and what do you plan to do about it?
One of the things I learned, mostly, on the campaign trail is the importance of listening, being an ear. Hearing the needs of, in my case, the parents and the kids. And that has to be followed up with action and policy that will support those needs. And that comes with collaboration with the board and always again, working toward that common goal of putting that student first.
One of the things that parents told me that was most important to them is that they wanted to make sure that their morals and values that they teach at home are respected at the school, because I believe that morals and values come from the school and that's some of the sentiment that has come back to me from the parents and I will support them in that.
I've learned that community members want our district to be an “A” again. I've learned that safety is one of their top priorities. I've learned that they're sick of the negativity and they want to see more unity. I've learned that we're more alike than different and that we want these things.
We want strong and successful schools that are safe. We want adults who will set positive examples for our kids so that they grow up to be respectful leaders.
They want the freedom and the space to communicate respectfully so that compromises are made and productivity occurs. Flagler is truly unique and a beautiful community that I am proud to have been a part of my entire life.
I've met so many different Flagler that community members since I started this campaign in June of 2021. And I've learned so much from their collective differences. And I can't wait to ... represent all of them with our shared goal of making Flagler schools the nation's premier learning organization by setting a positive example of unity and collaboration on our board.
On the campaign trail, I know that people want to be able to be listened to more than they are now. So one of my proposals is, in fact, the consent agenda right now has to be changed. That any item that is over $150,000 must be open for public hearing. Now [it's] just bing bing, bang bang, just come in and sign. If a commissioner doesn't want to pull an item, it may not be pulled.
The citizens need to be respected. They need not to be told to sit down after three minutes. After they take time to come and tell the commissioners what their needs are. ... I want to bring integrity and respect for the people who would elect me to serve them, not me. To serve them on their terms, not on my terms.
So, I will tell you one thing, it's really hard to assure someone in the west who's dealing with very real flooding problems, issues, getting ambulance and police and fire out there in a timely manner — it's hard to assure to them that we are taking care of needs when they see what they perceive to be wants, like building a library, things of that nature.
So I think we have to do a really good, better job I should say, of conveying our long term plans here and that we have solutions in place for them.
Because right now people don't understand. They see a lot of putting the cart before the horse here. ... I think we have to do a better job of conveying that we understand the needs and that we have a solution in place and then the funding for that as well. ... You know, there's people that are getting ready to pave roads on the west and they didn't even know it. So I think we have to do a better job of explaining to people that we're in tune with their needs.
I learned quite a bit on the campaign trail. It's been a journey. And first of all, I've learned that people from the city want City Council members that listen, City Council members that have integrity, City Council members that are honest, city council members that will communicate and come back and be a voice for the community.
Not just sit on the dais, and after your three minutes, as Jane says, just forget about it, going about their day until the next City Council meeting, and nothing gets done.
Because I've been a part of that arena, and I felt many times when I got up to speak that I was not heard I was not being listened to. So people in this city, they want to be listened to and they want somebody on this council that tone of your voice for them.
I was the only candidate in the City Council race in my district that was able to collect the signatures needed to qualify and be on the ballot. Meaning I had a knock on over 400 doors to get my qualifications to be on the ballot. And what I found out was incredible.
So many residents are so disconnected from the plans that the city has. They're wondering about the growth, the impact on the infrastructure. Well, I told them all of that is planned, you just got to get on the PalmCoastgov.com website and go into the Strategic Action Plans. ... We are on top of it, the city does have a plan, and that's what I found out.
And that's what I intend to do is to continue to keep my district informed by doing roundtables, quarterly meetings, right here. But we have to put our will keep you informed.
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI
I think that our citizens want three main things, and that's preparation, transparency and accountability. They want our city council members to come to the meetings prepared. ... They want transparency and the reasoning why are city council members are making the decisions they're making rather than just rubber stamping and sending going on to the next.
And finally, they want accountability. Our City Council members need to be held accountable for the decisions, good and bad, that they make on the dais.
... Finally, I've realized that we have a lot of really kind residents here and I personally want to thank everybody who offered me water. I was knocking on doors in the middle of July and August and it was very hot. And so thank you to all of our citizens. We really have a kind community here, and if we can give them those three things the city council members I think we have a great foundation for success.
I believe if you want a job, or the job of city council, you work for it. I've knocked on approximately 7,000 doors ... I spoke to a large percentage of people that were home. One of the main things that I found, that has been mentioned several times, is that they do not feel residents do not feel that they're being listened to when they go to City Hall.
I have gone to as I mentioned earlier, the majority of city council meetings over the past couple of years and I have gone up to the podium dozens of times and I have left the podium thinking they've heard me a few times.
But the majority of times, I've left the podium thinking nothing was said. ... People do not feel like they're listened to. I have held as I mentioned earlier, public meetings at my home. I've held public meetings here and I will continue to do that when elected as your city councilman so that you can have as much time as you want to tell me what you think the city needs.
Dunes (county candidates only)
The dunes were wrecked again by hurricane Ian. What is the best course of action for Flagler County with the dunes?
So when I started running seven months ago I had a totally different answer to this. ... I don’t think our local government is really going to be able to solve this problem. I think we’re going to have to lean into the state with their beach resiliency teams that they’ve created in the Army Corps to help us solve for this. It’s certainly a really big issue for us.
I know that we need to protect our beaches and dunes, it’s going to be a problem for the entire state of Florida. ... I think we need to talk about that in the long term, the impact on the residents here, whether or not that needs to be put out to referendum. If that’s the best course, because it is going to be a very expensive and lengthy, you know, solution. It’s going to take many years and a high cost to get there.
You know, Denmark has built sea walls around their country. ... I cannot see us pouring money after money after money, for the same old failing sand. We need to find a solution, and I do not think the solution is here.
We need to really go worldwide, again, to countries like— where are people solving the issues? If you have to have a wall in front of your house, and instead of seeing sand dunes, but that’s going to protect the beach, then so be it. I don’t want to see more money thrown into sand for another storm. It’s bankrupting everybody, and it’s not doing anybody a favor. We need to go worldwide and get experts to give us the best solution to save what’s left of Flagler Beach.
Words of wisdom
Because we only had the county candidates on that last question with regards to the beach, the remaining six candidates will be asked this before closing statements. ... What are words of wisdom that demonstrate what is important to you and how would those words impact how you govern selected?
I believe in the power of community. I've seen it firsthand and in my community involvement: When people come together, great things can happen. So, and I hope to foster a culture of parent involvement in Flagler Schools because when parents get involved in their children's education, kids do better. And I'm inspired by this quote from Benjamin Franklin. He said, “An investment in education pays the best dividend.”
And that's what our children are doing every day. They're investing in their education, their teachers are investing in their education. Our entire Flagler Schools is investing in their education. You are investing in their education by being here tonight to be informed voters.
And I'm going to invest in their education. And I'm going to make sure that you get a good return on your investment. And my goal is to make Flagler schools, the envy of the state, if not the nation, if not the world.
I live by this quote: "Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood." This is not something that I have seen happen enough with our current board. These words will impact how I govern by reminding me that I am elected to serve the community.
The students in our hallways, the teachers in our classrooms, the bus drivers on our roads and the hard-working parents and families in our businesses. I will always seek first to understand their perspective before making any decisions because I work for them and for the betterment of Flagler Schools. Thank you.
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI
Pope Francis said that every man or woman who takes up the service of government should ask themselves if they are humble enough to listen to everyone, to diverse opinions, in order to choose the right path.
That is good governance. And that is something that really touches home for me. You know, my race is a nonpartisan race, but I have been very vocal on the fact that I'm a constitutional conservative and that's because I value the Constitution. ... That being said, the Constitution does not see party lines. It is the same Constitution whether you're a Republican or you're a Democrat, or you're an independent.
Now, obviously, we interpret in different ways sometimes, but I will hold the line of my constitutional values while still having the humility to listen for the right path forward to make sure that I'm not allowing my ego to get in the way of what's best for our citizens.
So, my words of wisdom might be a little more crass. My dad wasn't overly poetic. So my dad's words were: "Shut up and listen," and, "You can't hear what somebody says when you’re running your mouth." And we have to start listening to what the public has to say — what you have to say, what you want us to hear when you want the City Council to work on.
You cannot do any of that while you're talking and not listening. I believe we need honesty, transparency, and most importantly, public involvement.
There's more people sitting here tonight in this auditorium than come to the average City Council meeting. The average City Council meeting doesn't even have as many people in as is in the front row. We need public involvement and my goal would be to get you there.
My words of wisdom, if I'm elected to City Council, is to be approachable. I want each and every citizen here in this city, to feel comfortable approaching me with any issue that they might have. So that I may in turn, turn around and be a voice and bring it to the council on their behalf.
I want everyone to feel comfortable enough to walk into City Council meetings and have a group like this sitting in City Council meeting. Instead of 10, 15, 20 people — you need to come out also and find out what's going on at your council meeting and become a part of it. ... Be a part of what is going on, so that you can be a part of the solution.
My three words of wisdom start with the three D's, and they’re diversity, determination and dedication. Diversity, meaning that when I go up there to work, I know that I'm going to be with other representatives up there that are going to have different views, to work in collaboration with them to reach consensus.
And determination is for me to know that when I go up there, I'm going to continue to work hard and in the best interest of my community, and that's going to lead to dedication. That means that I am going to do the best that I can to go up there prepared, not winging. ... You just don't do that you're playing with people's lives and the future of this stuff.
Education is my passion, and always has been and always will be. I'm an award-winning Flagler educator who's fiscally responsible, understands the nuances of the school district's budget and has worked in three of the many great schools here in our county.
I have nine years of experience teaching Florida state standards at the elementary, middle and high school levels. And I've designed curriculum for schools across the country, and now design curriculum for Harvard University.
I have three children in Flagler Schools, and want nothing more than to make Flagler the best place in the country for our kids to receive their education. I'm not leaving this beautiful place that I call home, and I absolutely want what is best for our staff and students, which is making Flagler a place where teachers are proud to work and where students graduate at or above grade level as proud young adults prepared to be five or community members.
I know the challenge that teachers and staff face every single day and I want to make sure they feel supported and that our students feel that support to so that to ensure their academic success and happiness.
THERESA CARLI PONTIERI
I want to thank my opponent earlier for the comment about my age. I am young, I'm 37 years old, but let me tell you, I got a lot of wisdom behind these 37 years ... and I'm proud of the fact that I'm very accomplished at a young age.
But because I'm young, I'm enthusiastic. I'm a hard worker and I will get things done for this city. Jimmy Valvano, known as Jimmy V ... said that nothing great can be done without enthusiasm.
And let me tell you, I am running because I want to do a good job for the city. I have an enthusiasm for you as residents, and I have enthusiasm for a positive progression in our city as we as we undergo a lot of change. You know, I'm a problem solver and a very dynamic profession. And I guarantee you, I will be the problem solver that you need.
I live by the saying, what's right is right, what's fair is fair. I'm a strict constitutionalist. I believe the Constitution applies to all of us. I'm civic-minded in this role. I enter into it only in our best interests of the taxpayer and not special interest groups. I am here to be a good steward of our tax dollars. I pledge to really protect our farms and our environment around here encourage responsible growth in the upcoming years and most importantly, know that I'm here for you and no one else.
Folks, let me just remind you that the stakes have never been greater for our city. ... We are facing challenges. I'm asking you to vote for me ... so that we all can find common ground in the challenges that lay ahead.
Our prosperity and our safety are in balance as well as opportunity. It is incumbent on us as a city to make sure that we create opportunity for everyone, from A to Z nobody stays out.
We need to bring jobs, we need to be bringing them paying salaries. We need to be careful how we develop, let's make sure that we define development. And that development doesn't define the growth doesn't define our city.
I'm asking for your support. Remember, Nov. 8 is around the corner. ... It's not about my opponent, and it's not about me. It's about the city of the future of the city of Palm Coast. You know where I stand. I share my vision with you. I again ask you for your support.
I'd like again to thank everybody for showing up tonight, and becoming informed voters. I'm not waiting to become elected to start doing things. That's why I'm the only district two candidate that has held public meetings so that you could come and tell me what you thought was important for the city.
As your city councilman, I will continue my proven record of public interaction and continue to advocate for public involvement in attending city council meetings. ... If you don't come to City Council doesn't think that you care, even though I know that you do. ... And as your elected official, I will be your voice at city council and I will listen to everything you have to say.
I truly believe that economic development is necessary, and diversity is extremely important. Our City Council currently has no small business owners sitting ther ... and I will bring that diversity and understanding of our local economy to City Hall.
I have been working today for your tomorrow, which is my mantra. I have been attending commission meetings for over 20 years straight, starting in 2002. I have attended and spoken at over 250 commission meetings, all for the citizens, never for me.
I'm fiscally very, very conservative, and I am watching our tax dollars. My resume, you can call me, [shows] how many issues I've been involved in. From the Sear’s purchase, the old hospital purchase, the Old Dixie bridge, the Bings Landing fiasco.
You know, again, this is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, and you are the people. Whether elected or not, I will continue working for you because that's what it's all about. Please vote for me. I have 20 years of fighting for you since 2002 ... life experience does matter.
I'd like to say that I come to you as a humble servant. I am here to serve this community. I am not just another politician. My life has been fulfilled by serving my community, the public and the people. So that is what I intend to do for the city of Palm Coast. And also, I want to be a voice. I'm on fire. If I can change the policy of the whole United States Army, I can help this city in many ways, and I will be there for you.
I just wanted to again say, I'm honored to have been endorsed by our great Governor Ron DeSantis. I'm running as a businessman, an outsider from the academic world, where I'm going to approach policymaking based on merit, rather than the status quo.
Teaching is a noble profession, but it's not the highest qualifier for School Board. You know, if we keep electing people from the system, we'll never change the system. School Board is ... a leadership position. And I believe I have demonstrated great leadership. ... My entrepreneurial experience will help me with vision casting and accomplishing those goals. And I believe that my community involvement will help me lead with ... love, empathy and optimism.
So, we're going to get back to basics. We're going to focus on reading math, science, American history, civics — the things that are needed to be productive members of society. And we're going to bring the joy back to the classroom, with extracurriculars and electives.
When I was in high school, I chose football, and my coach put me in as strong guard, and that's what I'm going to be for your kids: a strong guard against anything that will try and sexualize or indoctrinate them.