Wellington Vice Mayor Matt Willhite hopes voters remember his record of accomplishments as they head to the polls Tuesday, March 13, when Willhite is seeking re-election to Wellington Village Council Seat 4.
“I’m running on a record,” he said. “I do vote with the majority much of the time, but I do have my own opinions. Those opinions are usually based on input I receive from residents. I think that’s what my job is. I will talk to everyone and ask for their input, and I think I demonstrate that on the dais when I ask questions.”
Willhite moved to Lake Worth from Michigan in 1980. He moved to Wellington 10 years ago and was elected to the council in 2008.
A fifth-generation firefighter, Willhite works for Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, where he is a captain. He and his wife, Alexis, have two sons: Luke, 4, and Mark, 2.
Willhite attended Indian River State College and Palm Beach State College, where he received his associate’s degree in emergency medical services. He is a former U.S. Navy Reserve corpsman and served with the U.S. Marines.
Willhite said he is running for re-election to continue protecting Wellington’s quality of life.
“Through one of the toughest economic times in my lifetime, we’ve been able to sustain this village,” he said. “We’ve gone out and garnered federal money. We’ve held the tax rate the same the last three years. We’ve gone from a budget of $119 million to $72 million, yet the village is still prospering. I was there when things were good. I was there when they got bad, and now I want to continue the work as things get better.”
Willhite pointed to the many beneficial projects approved during his time in office, including the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, completion of the Wellington Environmental Preserve, upgrading of the village’s water treatment facilities and other infrastructure.
In his second term, Willhite said he would focus on bringing jobs to Wellington, bringing the village out of the foreclosure crisis and finishing long-standing projects expected to be completed in the coming years. “I would like to create some more jobs in the community,” he said. “Yet I still think of it as a bedroom community. I think that’s why people live here.”
One way he believes jobs could come to Wellington is through the proposed medical arts district. Willhite noted, however, that there are still many factors that have to come together for that idea to materialize.
“I think it has great value if all these stars align,” he said. “If it happens, it’s a great thing. The hospital is our single largest [private] employer in this village. For them to be able to add some more would be a great value. I’m hopeful that it can happen, but I’m not 100 percent guaranteed that it can.”
With Wellington leading the county in foreclosures, Willhite said that helping bring back the housing market has been a continued goal. “I would like to get us out of this foreclosure crisis,” he said. “I think the sun is coming up. I think that things are looking better.”
Some of the measures Willhite has supported to help include a neighborhood abatement program to maintain vacant properties, the countywide Neighborhood Stabilization Program, working with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and instituting the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative.
“We’ve been taking homes that are in disarray and maintained them for safety,” he said. “When you have a bad apple in the bundle, it’s going to spoil the rest.”
Willhite said he has been fully in support of the Safe Neighborhoods program and would like to see it continue. “It has really helped the neighborhoods and the village as a whole,” he said.
Though Wellington faces a continually shrinking budget, Willhite noted that the village has held its tax rate steady for three years and that he would look to use rate stabilization funds to offset any budget shortfall.
“I don’t know that we really need to have a tax increase,” he said. “We still have about $2.5 million in rate stabilization funds. That money is supposed to be for a rainy day. Things seem to be getting better. However, we have the ability to utilize some of those funds.”
Willhite pointed out that Wellington is expecting some savings this year, seeing the fruits of recent capital improvements. They will save on rent for the PBSO District 8 substation, which recently moved from the original Wellington Mall into the village’s old administrative offices.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a reason to raise the [tax] rate next year,” he said.
One project that saw unexpected costs was the Patriot Memorial, a project Willhite spearheaded to pay tribute to those lost in the 9/11 attacks.
“Was I as upset as anyone else about the costs? Absolutely,” he said. “Everyone supported the project, and then it came back with more poignant numbers. It came in at $800,000, and we said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
In the end, the project cost approximately $430,000. The cost was covered not by taxpayers’ money, Willhite said, but by impact fees left over from savings on other projects, and about $140,000 in private donations.
He noted that another privately financed project, Scott’s Place playground, has already cost Wellington more than $100,000.
“No one has complained about Scott’s Place,” he said. “Do I think [the Patriot Memorial] is one of the most beautiful memorials in the village? Absolutely.”
Though Willhite admitted that he and Village Manager Paul Schofield got off to a rocky start when Willhite first joined the council, he said he believes Schofield is doing a good job.
“He’s in a difficult position with five people that he’s trying to please,” Willhite said. “He did a lot to help us through the down time. He cut $50 million from the budget. That’s a lot of money.”
But Willhite has concerns when it comes to the village’s legal department and rising costs for legal consulting.
“When I first got elected, we had about a $750,000 budget for our legal department,” he said. “I am concerned where we are right now with all the pending lawsuits that we are involved in. I still think there’s a benefit to bringing our legal counsel in-house. I think it could potentially cost us a lot more in the coming years.”
Willhite said he strongly supports the Palm Beach County Office of the Inspector General and believes it should be fully funded.
“Join the lawsuit, don’t join the lawsuit. Fund the inspector general,” he said. “Seventy-two percent of the population said we’re going to put the inspector general in place and this is how it’s going to be funded. That’s what we have to do. I think what we have to do is follow the will of the people.”
Another controversial issue this election cycle is the proposed Equestrian Village project. Willhite said that he supports the dressage facility on the property, but not the overall project due to concerns about traffic and density.
At a council meeting last month, he was the lone dissenter on two of the project’s three parts, joining Councilman Howard Coates in opposition to the third part.
“It all tied in to traffic safety,” Willhite said. “They talked about extending the use of the facility year-round with conventions and [other events]. I have a lot of concern about the safety. There are no lighted traffic signals to facilitate [traffic]. They are dumping onto feeder roads.”
The height of the proposed hotel and the commercial development also concerned him.
“When I did the calculations at the dais, [the hotel] was 95 feet high,” he said. “There is not a single building west of the turnpike… that is that tall. Do I think Mark Bellissimo has done a lot to benefit this village? Absolutely. But I have concerns about the timeliness of the growth. Other businesses are hurting right now.”
Though Willhite has been painted as a voice of dissension on the council, he said that he votes with his colleagues most of the time.
“I’ve voted against different things, but for the most part, I vote with the majority,” he said. “Do I ask questions before I get there? Absolutely. It’s my job to make the best informed vote I can.”
Willhite said that he will be a voice for the preservation of Wellington’s quality of life.
“It’s about the quality of life,” he said. “That term is defined differently by each one of us. I think I’ve been able to offer that broadly to every person who lives here. I’m a family man. I’m a working-class guy, and I’m working to make this village a better place not only for my family, but for residents, too.”