Charlotte commissioners face huge challenges

The following editorial was published in The Daily Sun on Feb23, 2023.

OUR POSITION: Charlotte County commissioners are facing some difficult long-term challenges, brought on by the area’s rapid growth, and their solutions will define their tenure.

The responsibilities of public office can be frustrating and taxing. No one who accepts the task of guiding public policy was ever promised a walk in the rose garden.

Charlotte County commissioners are facing perhaps the most difficult stretch of tough decisions since the 2008 recession, and there are no easy solutions. That much was made evident at a workshop Tuesday.

A consultant went over a list of challenges Charlotte County faces. And, while there were no surprises, looking down the list may have drawn some deep breaths from commissioners who will be expected to come up with answers.

Most of the problems have been well documented and publicized. A lack of affordable housing, rapid growth that stresses our infrastructure, a depleted pool of workers and crowded roads topped the challenges. No one even approached the question of water quality.

When you try to pin down answers, it seems each problem exacerbates the other. To fix one problem requires the county to fix them all.

Let’s start with affordable housing. This is not an issue that is Charlotte County’s alone. It is a statewide problem that the Legislature is taking a good look at in its spring session which begins in a week.

The problem is, the state and Charlotte County have let the issue fester for far too long. It’s been talked about for years. Commissioners have thrown out ideas. They’ve tried to lure developers with free land and lower impact fees. But nothing has resulted in more homes or apartments that are affordable to most families.

In reality, the only answer will be to let building overtake the problem until we have more housing units than we can fill — which will be years considering the influx of new residents. Then, the supply and demand theory will cure the problem naturally.

But, we can’t wait that long. That’s because the county’s other huge problem is a lack of employees. Not only does the county have dozens of unfilled jobs, but the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office is short 40 deputies. Restaurants don’t have cooks and wait staff needed year-round — much less enough people to deal with the seasonal uptick.

We need more roofers, plumbers, electricians, landscapers, hospitality workers — and we needed them before Hurricane Ian forced us to rely on temporary help from all over the Southeast. The opening of Sunseeker resort this fall — which is expected to need 600 to 1,000 workers — will siphon staff from existing businesses and explode the need for affordable housing.

Charlotte County has promised to bring at least 200 affordable housing units on board every year. That’s a fraction of what is needed.

Bringing home $40,000 a year and paying $1,800 to $2,200 a month for housing doesn’t add up.

Then there is the issue with traffic. State Road 776 is busier than ever as anyone who commutes from Englewood to Port Charlotte can attest to. Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41, is equally challenging in season and even year-round.

Roundabouts are being discussed as an improvement on many local roads. Expansion and alternative routes over the Myakka River and Peace River are what is needed. There is no money or plan right now in the county and/or state budget for that to happen.

Commissioners tossed out some good ideas Tuesday. They included making high school students more aware of employment opportunities. Funneling high school graduates into vocational training is another good idea.

The challenges are many and they are complex. How these county commissioners — a group we believe could be the strongest and smartest collection of representatives we’ve had in years, if not decades — rises to the challenge will decide if Charlotte County can be a leader and example for others in the state or becomes a crowded mess with gridlock on its roads, deteriorated housing and businesses shuttered for lack of employees.