by Eric Wright
It is a region’s cooperative efforts that set it apart and create the quality of life that draws and retains the businesses and therefore the people that make up the community. The most obvious, but often overlooked, example of that cooperative investment in our County is the county government itself, which builds and operates the libraries and parks, provides fire and ambulance services, ensures road and building maintenance, oversees the Sheriff’s Department and the jails, along with a host of other services most of us are unaware of, until we have a need or that service is no longer funded. Stockton Whitten has been working in public service in Brevard County since 1994 and as Assistant County Manager for the Management Services Group since 2000, fulfilling the mission of “ensuring and enhancing the quality of life in Brevard.”
SCB: (Viewing his office) I see you are a Gator fan.
SW: I grew up in Jacksonville and got my undergraduate degree at the University of Florida. In fact I earned two graduate degrees from UF – which I still don’t think my wife has gotten over yet – one in Public Administration and one in Business Administration.
SCB: What guided your decision to go into the public service arena?
SW: During my final year as an undergraduate, I had an internship with the City of Gainesville. There I met an amazing lady, Bernadette Woody, and a gentleman, Bill Reynolds, who were on the Human Resources and Community Development side of government. They were totally committed to their jobs and their community. Not only were they role models, but they talked me into government service. Though they didn’t make a whole lot of money, they were very happy in what they were doing and had a great reputation in the community. They captured my interest and demonstrated a commitment to bettering the community.
SCB: So that’s where the motivation or sense of mission began?
SW: It was that opportunity to make a difference. Perhaps it is not big changes, but incrementally, step by step we are moving the County in a direction that touches people every day and impacts their quality of life. That is what attracted me – the opportunity to make a good living while directly influencing where people live and work every day.
SCB: Have you ever considered being involved at the State or Federal level?
SW: The Federal Government is just too big and being a Gator, I’m not really interested in living in Tallahassee (laughing).
SCB: You’ve lived and worked all around the state, what attracted you to Brevard?
SW: My wife and I wanted to be closer to our families; she grew up in Cocoa and we liked the idea of raising our children in this area. This community is unique; the people here are, according to some, conservative, but I look at them as middle of the road. There is a lot of diversity and it is a friendly and a family-friendly community. In South Florida I found people to be distant and disconnected; here I see people who are engaged in their community. In many ways, geographically, in terms of the disposition of the people and the natural and cultural amenities, it is the ideal place to live.
SCB: You’ve served with County Manager Howard Tipton since 2009. What are the major differences in Mr. Tipton’s administration and approach?
SW: His big focus is on accountability and performance measurement. There are a number of initiatives, but he has said he wants to, ‘focus on the critical few priorities that drive success.’ He has refined and implemented a business model or style of review system that measures how each department is doing relative to goals and expectations.
Also his style of management is very participatory. You are there in the discussion and he is taking your input before the decisions are made. He is very good about using us as an executive staff to make management decisions, while allowing us the autonomy to make day to day decisions.
SCB: Is this idea that government should be run like a business being embraced or resisted?
SW: There are certain models and components that business has developed that are very applicable to the government sector. I’m not sure that Mr. Tipton or others like him would agree that in every arena the government should be run like a business. They are different institutions, with different missions and completely different accountability structures. Though Mr. Tipton is the County CEO, he has to report to the Commission almost weekly to get his marching orders from them; no business is run like that. But those are the kinds of checks and balances that we demand of our government, at all levels. Our challenge is finding and embracing those best practices that can help us do our job better.
Our staff, I believe, is very responsive and receptive to the directives of our new CEO. In many ways it is the public that has to be brought up to speed on the changes we have made to enhance and monitor the performance of our organization. When looking at the budget the first thing people should examine are the performance measurements built into each category, from the number of clients at the libraries to the miles of road that have been paved.
SCB: What are the major challenges and the answers in this period of economic difficulty, coupled with the end of the Space Shuttle?
SW: According to the data available, Brevard County rates very favorably compared to other counties in terms of the rate and structure of our tax system. What we are challenged with is maintaining this rather vague, but essential factor called ‘quality of life.’ Let’s face it, though we came here for various reasons, one of the reasons we want to stay here is the quality of life. Granted, that means different things for different people.
When you look at our tax structure and the number of tax initiatives that have been voted in, which are quality of life taxes from purchasing beach and riverfront property to building parks and recreational facilities, the proof is in the pudding – these are priorities to the voting public. Of course one of the keys to this quality of life issue is job creation. The County doesn’t create jobs, but we are a key player in creating the environment for job creation, which is a major priority of the Commission. These are challenging issues concerning what role the government should play and what incentives we should provide for job creation.
SCB: The County has been working with the EDC to make Brevard more business-friendly. What are the major factors in making that happen?
SW: Job creation has to be viewed incrementally. The 5,000-10,000 job employer is nowhere on the horizon; it will come from the 100-500 job initiatives that the EDC has gone after and landed. The Commission just approved tax abatement for a company in Titusville, which again was a voter approved initiative. But it will require cash incentives for companies to locate their businesses here; this reflects the kind of competitive environment, state to state and county to county, that we are living in. This is one of the issues that your average man on the street doesn’t fully grasp, nor is their consensus about the government’s role in job creation. No one debates the results if they come; what people debate is the means to get those results and what will happen if the results don’t come.
The debate is: does the government facilitate or does the government get out of the way? The S.N.A.P. program to streamline our permitting and development process is an example that is both facilitating and not encumbering the building process any more than is necessary. Mr. Tipton is big on cooperative efforts; another example of this is the cooperative purchasing within the county government and the various municipalities. Buying as a larger block enhances our competitive purchasing power.
SCB: What would you like to see in relationship with Tallahassee?
SW: I think we work very well with our legislative delegation. The governor has a non-traditional style of governing; we will see how that plays out. The biggest issue is the non-funded mandates. These are the things that the State requires us to do, but that the State is not obligated to provide the resources to do it with. We have a Medicaid bill and we have a juvenile bill that mandates certain things before a juvenile goes to trial, but these are things we have to pay for. The only way to make it work is for other services to suffer. It is just like running a home – you have to prioritize your expenses and which bills are going to be paid.
SCB: What do you see as being significant as we look toward 2012?
SW: People place a lot of emphasis on the aggregate millage rate, which is a statistical figure. That doesn’t necessarily reflect what you or I pay in taxes; it is a calculation of the amount collected, relative to the number and value of properties. That figure goes up and down based on property values. If property values go up, the Commission has the authority to lower it and when property values go down, they have the authority to raise it to ensure revenue for services. But the majority of people pay the same. State law mandates that it has to change based on property taxes, but a tax increase is defined as taking in more than the revenues of the previous year. Most citizens are asking, ‘Are my taxes up or down relative to the quality of life I want to maintain?’
Remember, the Commission is a political body and people come to that political body with certain perspectives and varying levels of expertise, which is why people elected them. It is an open and honest dialogue and a commitment to shared core priorities; of course it is sometimes a process to discover those priorities. But if the perspective is that we are here to make the community better, in my experience the outcomes are positive and they will work to reach consensus, which means, not one loser and one winner, but everyone winning by defining what and how consensus can be reached.
SCB: What is the most challenging part of your job?
SW: Budget development – an open and fair discussion with the public on how services are funded and why certain resources are set aside for specific use, like monies raised through tax initiatives. I heard a lady in a community meeting stand up and say, “I will gladly drive around a pothole in the road on my way to the library. I could care less about the pothole.” Well, everyone doesn’t feel that way.
A respected author and speaker, Eric Wright is the assignment editor for SpaceCoast Business magazine.