North Port City Commission candidates zero in on budget and spending at forum

NORTH PORT — Concerns about the budget, spending and the financial health of the city of North Port — as well as the need for infrastructure to attract business — were common themes shared Tuesday night, as candidates for the District 1 and 2 City Commission seats aired their views at a League of Women Voters Zoom candidate forum.

Because three of the five City Commission seats are on the ballot in November, this is a pivotal year for city government.

Only two of the three District 1 hopefuls, David Iannotti and Rich Suggs, attended the forum. Moderator Vilia Johnson said the third candidate, Nicholas Trolli, did not respond to the invitation.

All three District 2 hopefuls, Cheryl Cook, Barbara Langdon and Jacqueline Moore, appeared.

While the primary is Aug. 18, early voting starts Aug. 8 and mail-in balloting is already underway. The top two finishers in each primary will advance to the Nov. 3 election — unless one of the candidates receives more than 50% of the vote.

District 3 incumbent Debbie McDowell will face challenger Jerry Nicastro in November.

The round-robin format, in which each candidate fielded identical questions, resulted in a lot of agreement among the five contenders.

Iannotti stressed the importance of the city’s long-term prosperity, as well as preserving the quality of life and neighborhoods.

To preserve that suburban character, Iannotti wants to keep more trees.

“North Port currently has zero effective mitigation for land clearing and I think that’s something that needs to change and I will change it as commissioner,” he said. “There’s not only the issue of property values there but the mismanagement of our natural resources.”

In response to a later question about what actions they would take to weather the economic toll of COVID-19, economic drain of the North Port Aquatic Center and the chore of rebuilding an aging flood control system, Iannotti expressed a willingness to cut existing services.

“No department should really be immune to being looked at, if there’s places where the city can create efficiencies and save money,” he said.

Suggs, in response to that question, said that would mean reducing payroll or reducing expenses outside of salaries.

Pointing out that North Port is self-insured for health care — though the plan is administered by Aetna — he said he has a plan to reduce medical costs.

Outside of that, he added, “you better start talking about people’s jobs.”

Suggs attacked concerns over residents’ tax burden by stressing that he’s going to be a voice for business.

“It takes businesses to be able to keep taxes low,” he said. “We need to have businesses help the citizens of North Port by subsidizing some of that tax burden.”

District 2 hopeful Cook frequently points to the first three years of her four-year tenure on the commission — which spanned 2012 to 2016 — as examples of the type of fiscal responsibility Iannotti and others critical of the current board practices are craving.

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