Three candidates for the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District Board of Supervisors are vying for two available seats in the Monday, June 26 election.
Political newcomers Connie Bell and Karen Piesley are challenging incumbent Frank Schiola, a two-term supervisor and now board president. Longtime Supervisor Don Widing chose not to seek re-election.
The prevailing issue among the candidates seems to be the inability of the Town of Loxahatchee Groves and the LGWCD to work well together, and how long it takes to get things done, especially with the transfer of district roads to the town.
“The district and the town need to work together,” Schiola told the Town-Crier on Tuesday. “Let the district go ahead and grade the roads and take care of the hedging and things like that… and save money for the taxpayers. The town needs to work with the district on getting the roads paved and reducing the dust out here, and reduce the amount of time we spend out here pushing dirt.”
Schiola believes that all the roads should eventually be paved.
“Pushing dirt is a waste of money,” he said. “Eventually, you’ve got to add dirt. The dust is dirt flying away… So, you pave [the road], you stabilize that surface and all you’ve got to do is come in and maintain that surface.”
Four of the five LGWCD board members, including the two seats up this year, are elected through proxies on a basis of one-acre, one-vote, which dates back to when the district was primarily agrarian with few actual residents, whose interest was primarily flood control.
Schiola thinks the district should remain independent for the benefit of property owners who do not live in the town, so they can also have a say.
“They have no representation on the town council,” he said. “They are not allowed to vote in town elections because they are not residents. This is another way that they can at least have a voice.”
Schiola said the LGWCD needs to buy new graders and water trucks so it can focus on maintaining the remaining dirt roads.
“They need to go ahead and deal with the problems at hand,” he said. “The graders we have are older, and the residents need to accept that there needs to be an assessment increase so that we can go ahead and buy new equipment.”
He added that the district will need to raise the assessment either to buy new equipment or repair the aging equipment that has reached the end of its lifespan.
Schiola pointed out that the LGWCD has not decided whether to raise assessments next year because it does not have to send the Truth in Millage (TRIM) rate to Palm Beach County until after the new board is seated.
“When the new board is seated, that new board may have some different ideas than the people sitting there now,” he said.
Schiola added that he believes that the district is quite capable in its limited scope of canal maintenance and water control to work with the town as an independent entity.
“We can assist the town in grading the town roads and hedging the town roads because we’ve already got the equipment to do that, and the equipment would just sit idle. It only takes us two or three days to grade all the district roads in the town.”
Schiola has been a firefighter for the City of Riviera Beach for 23 years, and for more than five years with the City of Belle Glade. He is married with two children in middle school and high school.
Piesley moved to Loxahatchee Groves in 1958 and has been in the nursery business for 40 years. She has run Caledonia Nursery on Folsom Road since 1989 and advocates better canal maintenance.
“The canals and canal banks are in worse condition than I can ever remember them,” she told the Town-Crier on Tuesday.
Piesley does not understand why the district has less money now than before the town started supplementing the district for road maintenance.
“Back when [former District Administrator Clete Saunier] was here, there was money in the account and the canals were in better condition, and they didn’t even have gas tax money then,” she said.
Piesley said she is not privy to information critical to understanding why the district is financially challenged but wants to examine it.
“I just feel that with some common sense, and being an honest person and caring about our town because this is our home, that I could do a better job than what’s being done,” she said.
Piesley said that the district should have been putting money away in anticipation of needing new equipment.
“There’s something out of line,” Piesley charged. “When it was run efficiently before, as far as the equipment, why all of a sudden now is there no money to repair the equipment; and if they’re going to be turning the roads over to the town, why would they want to spend money on more equipment? None of it makes any logical sense to me.”
As a longtime nursery owner, Piesley said she has the wherewithal to run an organization efficiently.
“If you’re in the red and you’re not doing the job that you should be doing, like taking care of the situations with the water and the canals and the culverts, you’ve got a problem,” she said.
She believes the remaining 10 miles of district roads should be turned over to the town.
“I think the town should take care of the roads and the water district should take care of the water,” Piesley said. “Obviously, the water district is not capable of taking care of the roads and the canals.”
She is very concerned with the state of the canals.
“They’re not mowed, there’s not grass on the edges of the canals, the water is too low, the water is too high,” Piesley said. “I just think that they really need to focus on what a water district does, and that’s take care of the water.”
Piesley said she will not know how she stands on an assessment increase until she knows the details behind it. “I know it has been quite a long time since they did an assessment [increase], but being in the dark as to what it actually is, I can’t make that decision,” she said.
Bell, who works for the Village of Royal Palm Beach, said she decided to run after hearing complaints from farmers who could not get enough water during dry spells, and couldn’t get rid of it during wet times.
“They weren’t listening to the farmers who needed water for irrigation, and when we do have a flood, and we can’t get the water off the roads, it goes from one extreme to the other. I don’t understand,” she said. “It can’t be that difficult.”
Bell has also grown dissatisfied with the apparent lack of efficiency at meetings.
“We definitely need some change, and we need to go in a different direction, and there needs to be more accountability and better communication,” she told the Town-Crier on Tuesday. “I’ve been going to the meetings, and nobody seems to remember anything. There’s no accountability.”
Bell also believes a better working relationship is needed between district and town officials, and that the board might be premature in considering an assessment increase.
“If they’re turning over the roads, are they going to need all that equipment?” she asked, adding that she does not understand after years of talk why the roads are not yet under town control.
Bell said she has been told that the road she lives on is high on the list to be paved, adding that her road had been practically impassible until Tuesday.
“How many years does it take to get stuff done?” she asked. “There has got to be some accountability, and the same people are up for re-election over and over again. Maybe it’s time for a change and a new outlook.”
She does not like the one-acre, one-vote proxy method used to elect four of the five supervisors.
“You’ve got to go out and get proxies because nobody really shows up [to vote],” Bell said, adding she has not felt safe going the long distances from door to door seeking votes. “I think we should look into how this is done in the future as well.”
She does not have a strong opinion on whether the district should remain independent.
“I want to do what’s right for our citizens and for our town. Whatever we’re doing right now is not working, because our roads are not being taken care of and our water control is not getting taken care of,” she said.
Bell has lived in Loxahatchee Groves for about 17 years and in Palm Beach County since 1987. She and her husband have three children, with the youngest in high school. All three were raised in the community.
The results of the vote Monday will be tabulated and announced at the district’s annual meeting that evening.