The city of LaBelle's veteran Mayor Sharon Craichy fired a volley of shots at Mayoral opponent Randy Bengston at Monday night's election forum at the LaBelle Civic Center. Craichy, with over a decade of local political experience, told the hundred or so in attendance that "He's got make-believe problems" and chastised Bengston over his comments on the city's water problems saying "You need to school yourself on the subject, son."
Bengston, Hendry county's long-time Public Service Director said "I don't like drinking yellow water!" in reference to the discolored water coming out of LaBelle's taps. The city's aging water plant that has had the state Department of Environmental Protection issue numerous orders to clean up the water over the last several years. Craichy blamed the city's water problems on the "Feds" coming in and forcing changes in the way the water was treated and says she has been working diligently on improving the water situation, trying to get state grants to build a new state of the art water treatment plant.
Craichy suggested that Bengston may want the county to take over the city's water treatment to which she said "we're not giving away our water plant." Selling water to citizens is usually a very profitable venture for governments because they can set their own rates without regulation.
Bengston, probably one of the county's best administrators, told the audience "I think it's time for a change" and that he favors hiring a full time professional city manager because of the recent growth of the city and the projections of future growth due to recent large annexations of land to the south of the city. Craichy attacked the idea, claiming she was a full-time mayor now and spent 40 hours a week on the job. When an audience member questioned how she was able to do that and work at her local real estate office too, she said she got up early every morning and worked two hours at her business before heading to the city maintenance barns to begin her city job. She told Bengston that he would not be able to be able to handle both his county job and the job as mayor, and told the audience that hiring a professional city manager was too expensive and would raise taxes. Bengston suggested taking some of the mayor's salary to apply toward hiring a city manager.
Craichy, the ultimate small town politician and smooth-talking salesperson, named-dropped all evening, introducing all the current commissioners to the audience as well as the office staff, and even the city street crews who weren't at the meeting. She several times mentioned Tommy Smith, who she said was her "mentor" over the years. Tommy "Las Vegas" Smith, is a local businessman, and former mayor, who rumors have it may have been mixed up with drug importing locals decades ago when Hendry county was notorious for drug dealing and the county Sheriff found himself staring at prison bars from the inside for a while.
Bengston said there is a "need to look at the city's checkbook" and claimed he found $18,000 spent recently towards food and catering items and money to Winn Dixie and the U-Save supermarkets that didn't seem to make sense to him. Craichy responded to the audience saying "Go check our books," and denied anything was wrong with the city's spending.
Craichy patted herself on the back, telling the audience about her negotiating skills and how she's able to get people to work for free and even claimed she buffaloed Wall-Mart executives at a recent meeting into giving LaBelle a more attractive looking building for its proposed 24-hour store in the LaBelle area. She said she put together a code review board three years ago that meets every Thursday morning comprised of local real estate people that work for free. The board is revamping the city's building codes. Critics suspect that the work won't really be "free" since these folks have a vested interest in codes that will help them in their private real estate businesses.
Craichy claims that she works hard to keep taxes low, at 3 mils for many years, but neglected to say that in addition, the city also collects hefty taxes from residents for parks, lighting and sewage districts, other fees over and above the city property tax.
Bengston said the "current Mayor is not listening" to the people and that "clear drinking water is more important than oak tree beautification" referring to the Mayor's long standing attempts to protect LaBelle's oak trees. Bengston said "I am not a politician but a public servant."
Both said they are for "impact fees" to be charged to developers who build in the city, claiming they don't want to charge locals, but don't mind collecting fees from "outsiders." Craichy said though that she wanted exemptions for building in LaBelle's downtown area historical district. Her real estate business is there and her daughter owned a home there.
When an audience question came up about why there are differences in LaBelle's neighborhoods, the well-kept mostly white Belmont section versus the black Martin Luther King area, Craichy more or less ignored answering directly, but said the Belmont residents were very particular about their homes and helped one another. Bengston attributed the differences to "renters" not caring as much about the properties as owner-occupied housing.
Early voting begins July 5 and election day is July 19.