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Five candidates join race for Vero Council

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER | NEWS ANALYSIS (Week of September 10, 2020)

Five people have qualified to run for three seats on the Vero Beach City Council in November, and this Wednesday’s scheduled budget hearing is a prime example of why voters need to choose three fiscal conservatives.

When the budget process began, the city staff anticipated the revenue situation would be dismal thanks to the pandemic economy’s effect on sales tax and gas tax receipts. Based upon that, the city council opted to keep the property tax rate the same to bring an extra quarter-million dollars into the general fund instead of going to the “rolled-back” rate that would have brought in the same tax dollars as the current year.

That quarter million dollars in extra property taxes would help fund an additional eight employees and a $565,000 increase in payroll at a time when the local businesses paying those taxes are laying people off, implementing furloughs or taking out loans to keep their doors open. That was the picture presented in July.

Last week, City Manager Monte Falls wrote to the council with the good news that Vero took in $317,000 more than expected, so instead of a deficit of $229,000, the council is now working with a budget surplus of nearly $88,000.

This is great. Vero can whittle the property tax rate down a bit now that the city does not need to pile an extra quarter million onto the property tax burden of residents and struggling business owners.

But Falls did not include any such proposal in his two recommendations to the council in Wednesday’s meeting backup documents:

“The unappropriated surplus can be applied to reduce the amount of residual cash from the electric sale proceeds used to balance the general fund budget for the year three of five of the transition plan,” Falls wrote, referring to the 2021-22 budget year. “Alternatively, [the windfall] could be retained for a future appropriation for projects such as continued support for Three Corners planning as those costs become identified.”

It will be interesting to see if anyone pipes up and says, “Or, we could cut the tax rate!”

The candidates’ positions on issues like taxes will unfold in the next 10 weeks leading up to the election as the five hopefuls debate and question each other’s fitness for office – but some important things can be gleaned from their backgrounds.

Councilman Robbie Brackett – the only incumbent running for re-election – should understand the impact on a business of paying more property taxes in a challenging economy due to a bump in assessed values. His candidate packet reveals Brackett’s financial interest in 90 properties in Indian River County and 55 properties elsewhere in Florida.

A Vero native and member of one of the county’s most generous philanthropic families, Brackett is bullish on Vero’s economy and the city’s prospects for attracting commercial investment in the riverfront project, including a major hotel.

But can he persuade the rest of the council to dream big? He is the council member most in tune with the local business community, so his colleagues on the dais typically listen to his point of view. To bolster the can-do contingent, Brackett wants to bring more young, optimistic people into the planning process to push a more forward-thinking approach.

Brackett seems a shoo-in for a second term on the Vero Beach City Council, with four other candidates – Bob McCabe, Honey Minuse, John Cotugno and Brian Heady – scrapping it out for the remaining two seats.

Vero Beach Chamber of Commerce CEO McCabe’s name was pulled on Friday for top billing on the ballot. McCabe came close to being elected last year when only two seats were open so he’s trying again.

McCabe is a 32963 resident who came to Vero with a solid corporate leadership background. His position leading the Vero Chamber puts him in a unique position to listen to the concerns and priorities of the local businesses that fuel Vero’s economy. McCabe could presumably become a constructive partner to work with Brackett to create city policy that is less bureaucratic and more pro-growth and pro-business.

But one aspect of McCabe’s resume – the part about him negotiating on six continents in his 32 years with General Motors – stood out from his general qualifications, because the Vero Beach City Council is notorious for getting itself into some horrific business deals.

“He also has extensive experiences working with various government entities around the world successfully negotiating agreements that were beneficial for the governments involved and for the firms he was representing,” McCabe’s bio states.

Minuse has become locally famous for her own style of leadership in the Indian River Neighborhood Association, a group accused over the years of being staunchly anti-growth and anti-development. In an announcement of her candidacy, Minuse pointed out that she’s served on Vero’s Planning and Zoning Board for 10 years.

The IRNA has publicly pushed for Vero to impose a stormwater utility tax – an idea many disagree with that keeps cropping up as the staff seems hell-bent on pushing it through in 2021. Numerous council members endorsed by the IRNA’s now-defunct political wing actively worked to thwart the sale of Vero electric to Florida Power & Light. More than a decade ago, the IRNA ran the City of Vero Beach through mayors Tom White and Sabe Abell and their obstructionist cohorts.

Though Minuse is intelligent, savvy and a dedicated public servant, and might very well do a decent job on the city council, voters will need to decide whether or not they want a political powerhouse on the dais pressing the IRNA agenda on the city once again.

Central Beach resident John Cotugno probably has the least name recognition of the five candidates running, so he will need to get his message out to voters in an election season when people are still social distancing and avoiding large events. Good thing he’s a marketing consultant by trade, with skills that should come in handy.

Cotugno’s Facebook page lays out an agenda of fiscal responsibility that sounds like a nightmare for city staff, but a boon for taxpayers. “My goal is to make municipal government as responsive and efficient as possible, and I think those go together. By embracing best practices and auditing each and every part of our government, I’m confident we can improve the quality of municipal services without spending a single penny more than we already do.”

Former councilman and perennial candidate Heady does not campaign or promote himself in the traditional sense, because he wants to be judged on what he stands for, and for who he is – an unbridled maverick. The big problem with Heady is that he’s totally unpredictable, and he’s an audacious contrarian. In the past he’s gone against the grain not only when Vero had wandered far astray, but even at times when city leaders were solidly on the right track.