June 12--WINTER HAVEN -- While public transit and Polk County's newest university dominated the conversation at Wednesday's fourth annual Mayors Roundtable, this is still a group with some small-town issues.
"We have an immediate problem, that's not too big," said Bartow Mayor Pat Huff during opening introductions. "I didn't realize we had so many chickens in Bartow."
Two other mayors, Marlene Wagner of Lake Hamilton and Nancy Daley of Lake Alfred, raised their hands when the group of 12 mayors was asked if other commissioners had chicken ordinance issues.
The mayors met Wednesday morning at Polk State College's Winter Haven campus for an open discussion that also included Polk County Commission Chair Todd Dantzler and was moderated by Colleen Burton, former Polk Vision executive director.
Mayors from most of Polk's municipalities -- the exceptions were Fort Meade, Mulberry and Eagle Lake -- were at the meeting, with a total of more than 120 years of public office time among them.
Some, such as Davenport's Darlene Bradley, are still in their first term as mayor or in government at all, others, such as Lakeland's Howard Wiggs, brought more than 20 years of public office experience to the table.
"I like to say that you've been there long enough to pay for your own sins," said Haines City's Roy Tyler, in reference to having to deal with problems created by previous decisions. Tyler has been a Haines City commissioner for more than 20 years, as well.
The first topic brought forward by Burton prompted the most discussion -- the prospect of a 1 percent sales tax to pay for public transit and road improvements. The referendum will be on the ballot this November.
While the tax would raise an estimated $32 million for public transportation and another $32 million for road improvements, Polk County's Dantzler said, it would make Polk tied for the highest sales tax in the state.
"A dynamic community is one that gets up and gets out of their house," Wiggs said. "We owe it to citizens for them to be able to do that."
All the mayors in attendance said they supported the referendum.
If the referendum passes, county commissioners have agreed to eliminate the property taxes levied to pay for transit and road construction.
The Lakeland Area Mass Transit District levies 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable value within the area served by the Citrus Connection bus system.
The County Commission levies $1 per $1,000 of taxable value countywide for road and bridge projects.
Polk City Mayor Joe LaCascia talked about the many years he spent growing up and then running a business in Manhattan. Beginning at 8 years old, the subway was an integral part of how he got around.
"I think the days are over where we can put our single bodies in 4,000-pound cars," LaCascia said.
"And we all share the demographics of aging communities. There's going to come a point in time we're not going to be driving anymore," La-Cascia said.
The mayors also spent much of the 2-hour discussion time talking about Florida Polytechnic University, which is still under construction and will begin classes Aug. 25.
"This is a transformational opportunity for the county," Wiggs said.
Although the university is in far northeastern Lakeland, all the mayors, especially Auburndale's Keith Cowie, spoke about the "spillover" effect the school will have on other municipalities' economies and needs.
"It's always a challenge as elected officials to explain how things are going to affect all residents," Cowie said, not just college students.
The mayors also discussed economic development, downtown revitalization and water conservation in Polk County.
"Education is the key to this," LaCascia said. "People have to understand all of the issues before they can make intelligent decisions."
Copyright 2014 - The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.