Ochs stands by traffic cams, power over Brock
New Collier manager douses fire-EMS plans
New Collier County Manager Leo Ochs stands by the county’s embattled red-light camera system as a safety tool, not a cash cow.
He also says the county still has issues with Clerk of Court Dwight Brock’s independent audits and opposes a move by fire districts to get into the ambulance business.
Ochs is this week’s guest on “One on One with Jeff Lytle” on Comcast Cable Channel 14 at noon Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009.
Video and transcript highlights are available now at naplesnews.com/oneonone.
Lytle is editorial page and Perspective editor of the Daily News.
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Lytle: It’s great to have you on this program. I’m just sorry it’s under these circumstances, with your predecessor, Jim Mudd, being ill and resigning. But here you are, and welcome.
Do you ever see Jim Mudd?
Ochs: Yes, I sure do, Jeff. And thanks for asking. You’re right. It was under difficult circumstances. The fortunate aspect of that is that Jim and I have worked together for the last eight or nine years. And I see him still regularly. In fact, I saw him yesterday for a little while.
He’s doing well. He’s in good spirits, and as usual he’s looking for ways to help around the county.
Lytle: He drops by the office.
Ochs: You know, we were joking, I think it’s part of his past military training where every three years they rotate out to a different assignment. So he’s making sure that everything is buttoned down, and the office is just perfect before he leaves it for me. And he’s leaving me little hints and notes and files. Typical Jim Mudd.
Lytle: Working with him as long a you did as his deputy and in other positions, you’ve been with the county since 1986. What did you learn from Jim Mudd? Or have you learned from Jim Mudd, because you might learn more?
Ochs: Jim was what I call a natural leader, somebody who had great character, great integrity. He was decisive. He was really visionary and was always looking ahead, not to the current budget or the current projects, but what were the impacts and ramifications of that project going forward. So those are some of the things that I learned from Jim. He was a great mentor and a great friend over the years.
I hope to take some of those lessons and apply them as we move forward.
Lytle: I hear he’s an interesting guy when he gets mad.
Ochs: He’s an animated guy when he gets mad. Yes he is, yes he is. He knows how to get his point across.
Lytle: He did a pretty good job of it here too.
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Lytle: Tell us about the red-light cameras. How do you think that’s going?
Ochs: I think it’s going fine. There’s been a lot of, obviously, information that’s gone back and forth between the public and members of the board of county commissioners about how to get this just right.
I think the common theme among all the commissioners is that they want to make sure that our road system and our transportation network is safe, not only for the motoring public, but for the pedestrians who use our sidewalks and roadways to get around the county.
So the concept of red-light-running cameras is a good one. Many people forget that it was brought to the county by the sheriff for that very reason, and so we’ve been working cooperatively with the sheriff to get the system implemented.
Of course, just recently, the board had some discussion about what the appropriate level of fines, particularly as it related to right turn on red. Initially that was a $125 ticket every time you made that turn illegally. So they went back and revised and created a three-tier structure, so now it’s $62.50 for the first violation; $75 for the second and $100 for the third violation.
Lytle: But the question then becomes, when do you, as a good manager, look at the way this is playing out? You look at the original intent — to get the guys blowing through the red lights and being a menace to society.
We see that most of the people getting caught are making the right turn on red, even if there’s no traffic coming and it’s a relatively safe operation.
And the fees are now lower to the point where the county really isn’t getting rich, at least on the first offense. So when would you go to your bosses and say, look, the juice is not worth the squeeze?
Ochs: I think that’s the initial fallacy that a lot of people had: that this was a money-making venture, and it was never intended to be a money-making venture. In fact, any revenue that we’ve received so far hasn’t gone to fund operations, or anything else. It’s been fenced off because it was never intended to be a long-term revenue source for the county.
Lytle: But it goes to the general fund?
Ochs: I understand.
Lytle: And the cameras are going to stay there.
Ochs: They’re going to stay, but again, the idea is to modify the behavior of the drivers so over time you’ll actually have fewer violations. And in fact, we’re finding already that’s working.
We had probably a thousand less citations issued in September than we did in August, and there were more cameras positioned in September than there was in August. So we’re actually seeing that modification of behavior.
That, coupled with the lowering of the fines, I think indicates to the public — or at least it should — that the commission didn’t do this to make money. They did this to make sure that the streets were safe again for both the motoring public and the pedestrians that use our sidewalks and streets.
Lytle: OK, then with safety foremost in mind, the winter season is coming and a lot of our winter visitors are going to be coming back who know nothing about these cameras, other than those little signs they see on the roads, even some roads that don’t have cameras.
What will the county’s public-relations campaign look like in reaching out to those winter visitors in good will and in fairness saying: “Attention, something has changed since you’ve been here last.”
What are you going to do?
Ochs: Great point. Well, we’re going to try to do some media blitzes. We also have a link on our Web page, www.colliergov.net, and you’ll see a link there for red-light cameras similar to what the Naples Daily News recently did, kind of give you the 10 things you should know about the red-light-running camera program.
The other thing that we’re working on right now with Jack Wert over in our tourism department is to try to get some information to the hoteliers and also to the rental car companies, actually a flier, if you will, to the rental-car companies so when they hand out keys for a rental car to somebody who’s visiting temporarily, they’ll have a little bit of a heads-up on the program.
Lytle: That’s a pretty good idea.
Ochs: Yes, I think so.
Lytle: You could buy some ads in the Daily News. I could help you arrange that.
Ochs: I’ll bet you could. We’ll look into that.
Lytle: Got to change the subject. Dwight Brock, clerk of courts. It looks, at least for the time being, there’s peace between Collier County government and Dwight Brock. Will that last?
Ochs: I hope so. I intend to make it last. I spoke with Dwight the day after the board approved his budget for fiscal year 2010, and we had a good conversation, basically assuring each other that we want to make this work and move forward on behalf of the taxpayers and stop the acrimony, and I take him at his word.
Lytle: If he decides he wants to do an independent audit on the expenditure of certain funds or the efficiency of a certain operation involving public money, is that OK with you?
Ochs: No, that is still a matter that is in the court system, and the board recently decided that they were going to pursue the appeal of that post-audit ruling from the Second District Court. So that is still in process in the court system.
We had recently filed for a rehearing on that issue with the Second District Court of Appeals and we’re waiting to hear back on whether or not they’re going to rehear that matter.
Lytle: So the peace that we see really amounts to funding so he can maintain some fundamental operations and not lay off quite so many people. Keep some offices open. But in terms of the real power, the real nub issues — the independent auditing power — that’s still on hold.
Ochs: That’s still unresolved.
Lytle: What are the issues there? I mean, if he’s tracking public dollars and efficiency helps us all, then where’s the rub?
Ochs: We have no rub there. There’s no problem with an audit per se. We have an independent audit done every year by an external auditing firm. So audits are not a problem for us at all.
I think the problem that the County Commission is having, and frankly with interpreting the Florida Constitution, is that every check that’s written goes through a rigorous prepayment review by the clerk of courts, for legality, to make sure it has public purpose, to make sure there’s sufficient budget to pay those bills.
So if he wants to come in and do a post-payment audit to determine the legality of payments that were made on a contract after the fact, how is that independent when he was the one who did the pre-payment audit and determined before the check was issued that in fact that was a legal payment?
So we don’t have a problem with audits, but if it’s going to truly be an independent audit, it’s difficult to say that the clerk, who was the one who determined it was legal to make initial payment, can now come back and basically audit his own payment procedures.
Lytle: OK, but if there’s a whole flood of checks and you just have to take care of business, and rather than gum everything up you’re going to sign the checks and keep things moving. But after the fact you say, hey, wait a minute, this Check Z over here, I want to see where that money went, and that’s public money, and I find out that it didn’t go where it’s supposed to go. It would be better to catch it in advance, but after the fact, where’s the problem?
Ochs: Well, again, we don’t cut the checks. The clerk does. So if something that’s done in error through the press of business on his side in cutting a check, well, obviously he can go back and correct that. That’s not what we’re talking about.
Lytle: But in the past he helped you find some tourist tax dollars in connection with the Stadium Naples case that didn’t go where they were supposed to go, and you didn’t know that until after the fact, and he helped track those down. That’s a good thing.
Ochs: Sure, sure.
Lytle: So would he still be allowed to do things like that? Isn’t that what you’re arguing about?
Ochs: We’re arguing about the language in the Florida statutes, and it’s about what are the legal duties and responsibilities of the board of county commissioners and what are the legal duties and responsibilities of the elected clerk of the court. And so far, that issue on post-payment audits has not been resolved. It’s still in the court system and we’re going to wait and see how that ultimately gets resolved by the courts.
Lytle: Next time, whenever you come back on this program, something tells me we’re still going to be going back and forth on this one.
Let me ask you: In terms of the budget and belt-tightening and some cuts, are there any road projects, any public works projects that are on the books that are not going to be finished, that are not going to get done?
Ochs: There are several that haven’t started and we’re going to have to defer many of those and push those out into future years because we don’t have the funds and, frankly, the demand for some of those facilities will not materialize as we originally thought they would since the downturn in the economy has really kind of stalled the population growth.
And as you know, the level of services is a function primarily of population growth and the dollars available. So when there’s fewer people here and there’s less dollars to apply to those capital projects, they obviously get pushed off into future years.
Lytle: Can you name a couple?
Ochs: We had a water and sewer project. We were going to build a plant up in the northeast end of the county behind the county fairgrounds, and we had that designed and were planning to get that going in the next year or so. But because the demand is down and dollars available to do that are not available currently, we’ll have to push that out into future years.
Lytle: Any roads?
Ochs: No, not right now. Nothing that would cause us a problem with our concurrency system. We’ve got a couple of roads — the extension of Santa Barbara Boulevard that’s in progress.
Lytle: Vanderbilt Beach Road extension?
Ochs: We continue to procure right of way. There’s no construction started in the immediate future for that project. We are going to have a capital project for road expansion on Davis Boulevard from (State Road) 951 (Collier Boulevard) up to Santa Barbara over the next year and a half, a joint venture with the state.
And then we’re continuing to six-lane certain segments of 951/Collier Boulevard. But beyond that — and the Oil Well Road project is out for bid right now and hopefully we’ll be getting those bids in at the end of the month. That’s probably the lion’s share of the road construction you’re going to see for the next three or four years in terms of new projects.
Lytle: Some of the fire departments are proposing a local legislative bill that would give them the option of consolidating and getting into the ambulance business — at least part of the way.
Is county government going to be a spectator on that, or will you be a participant, saying the legislators should do this or not do this?
Ochs: The last board meeting, Jeff, we took a list of proposed legislative priorities to the County Commission so they can in turn address the local legislative delegation when they have their hearing on Nov. 24.
This item was one that we discussed with the board, this consolidation bill that is referred to. Our board voted not to support that bill and would want to express that to the local legislative delegation. I think their primary concern at this point is that that bill, as drafted, would allow the new district the ability to issue themselves a certificate of need to provide advanced-life-support medical services.
Lytle: And that’s one of the ongoing issues with your county Medical Director Dr. Robert Tober?
Ochs: Yes, sir. And I think the board would like to see one medical director with one consistent level of care so no matter where you were in the county, if you needed that kind of medical treatment, there would be one consistent medical protocol with standards that everyone follows. And the board has been very firm with that.
Lytle: We’ll probably talk about this issue next time you come back too.
Ochs: I believe we will.