Homestead’s power plant, economic development and the old City Hall were some of the topics discussed at the mayoral candidates’ debate Monday night.
Four candidates are vying to fill the mayor’s seat, including Steve Bateman who until last month served in that same post. Gov. Rick Scott suspended Bateman after he was arrested for holding a secret consulting job with the nonprofit Community Health of South Florida Inc. at $125 per hour all the while pushing the company’s Homestead construction project through Miami-Dade County, including through a meeting with county Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The nonprofit also had business in front of the city.
Former Homestead vice mayor and councilman Jeff Porter; pastor at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church Rev. Joseph Sewell; and former Homestead mayor and current county commissioner Lynda Bell’s husband, Mark Bell, also are in the race.
The first political jab during the 90-minute debate came when the four candidates discussed Homestead’s power plant, which supplies electricity to city residents and businesses as well as to some homes and businesses in neighboring communities.
“You know who decides how much you pay for your power?” asked Bell. “Your mayor and council.”
Bell, 57, said that people who receive power services from Homestead’s plant pay more than if they used FPL. As the owner of the Historic Hotel Redland in Homestead, Bell said he pays 50 percent more on his electric bill than if he used FPL.
Bateman said that staff, and not elected officials, decides residents’ rates, which cover operational costs. He suggested the creation of a residents’ advisory committee as a way to remove the council from the process.
For the past couple of years, revenues from Homestead’s power plant fees have been used in the general fund in order to balance the budget without increasing property taxes. Some argue that this amounts to a tax on Homestead residents as well as on people who do not live in Homestead but use the city’s power plant.
“I’ve heard from so many citizens that the power bill is just too high,” said the 56-year-old Sewell, adding that the plant should be running at full capacity. Residents would “rather put the windows up than put on the A/C.”
Porter, 54, said that he thinks officials should look into ways of re-investing in the city’s power plant so that it can lower its costs.
Then, debate moderator Bob Jensen listed five unfinished city projects, such as the dilapidated bowling alley and the downtown Seminole Theatre, and asked each candidate to pick one that they would prioritize if elected.
Porter picked the old City Hall, which was shut after inspectors found contamination from radon gas, asbestos and mold. Porter said that he would like to lease the building for revenue instead of the city losing the asset. Bell chose the completion of the Seminole Theatre, Bateman spoke about the benefits to youths from the city’s baseball complex, and Sewell said he wants to see the old City Hall re-open
“That corner is the face of Homestead,” said Sewell, referring to the intersection of U.S. 1 and Campbell Drive.
Overall, just two indirect references were made to Bateman’s recent run-in with the law.
“First of all, in Florida City. the mayor and council don’t spend time fighting each other and investigating each other,” said Sewell, responding to a resident asking why neighboring municipalities are better than Homestead in bringing in new businesses.
Then, in his closing statement, Porter said: “As a former vice mayor and council member I feel uniquely qualified to lead our city through these turbulent times created by Mr. Bateman. … I say Mr. Bell is my main opponent because if Mr. Bateman were to win the election, Gov. Scott would remove him from office the very next day.”
Neither these comments nor Bateman’s arrest will have any influence on Vielka Dyer’s decision once voting day comes. She’s voting for Bateman.
“I think it is something minor that will be resolved,” said Dyer, referring to Bateman’s arrest. “He did not steal from the people of Homestead. Bateman really loves his city. … It was all arranged. It was all a political thing.”
Touting Bateman’s services to the city, she said that the free trolley transportation system has helped residents.
“Now poor people and the elderly can get to the doctor,” she told the Miami Herald. “I rode it once and it was full of citizens.”
Homestead resident Gunther Karger said he will vote for Bell.
“There comes a time when a neutral person may be a good catalyst to moving forward,” he said. “There is too much animosity and anger. The city needs a solid person who is nor necessarily grounded in the politics.”
Voters can cast their ballot in the primary election on Oct. 1 or during early voting between Sept. 26 and 28. The two candidates with the highest number of votes will move on to the general election Nov. 5. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, he will be automatically elected mayor.