Interview with Commissioner Mildred Fernandez–Orange County Mayoral Candidate
Conducted by: West Orlando News
Date: February 24th 2010
WONO: Commissioner Fernandez, could you begin by introducing yourself–tell us a little about Mildred Fernandez?
Mildred Fernandez: Well, I am a retired IBM executive. I worked for IBM for 25 years and one of the things that makes me successful as County Commissioner is, I bring the corporate experience to government. One of the things I used to do in IBM was organizational change effort for my clients and with that background, I decided to enter public office to reform government. In 2004, I was elected to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, and overwhelmingly, re-elected in 2008. I believe in small government and low taxes. I know that government can best support economic growth by reducing taxes and eliminating bureaucratic rules and regulations. I understand that when government encourages competition, tax payers win.
WONO: What has your experience been like as County Commissioner?
Mildred Fernandez: It has been an outstanding and overwhelmingly positive experience to help my fellow citizens. Let me give you some of the experiences that I have as a County Commissioner. One of the things that I did for my district, and I’m still working very hard on it, is to change the image of District 3. Of course, you don’t do these things by yourself. This has been a partnership with good enforcement and public works, enhancing how the district looks. Also, because of my corporate background, I am the only Commissioner that, during the hurricane season, established a task force to help my fellow citizens during those difficult times. I am very much involved when we have fires, or when we have difficult emergency situations. For example, when there is a fire in my district, I will make sure that my citizens are being taken care of by the Red Cross and the Fire Department. When we have floods in Azalea and Old Cheney, I drive through the areas just to ensure that the public works department is doing its job and the citizens are getting help. I am very, very involved in public safety. I think that’s the biggest service that government can provide to its citizens. So, one of the things that I encourage as County Commissioner is that, those high crime areas, not only in my district, but throughout Orange County, have special funding for public safety.
WONO: The unemployment rate in Central Florida is around 11.8%. And I imagine it is equally high in Orange County. Against the backdrop of rising unemployment, what are the key issues you see that ought to be tackled to help to increase job creation?
Mildred Fernandez: I am a firm believer that, in order to stimulate Orange County economy it has to be through lower taxes and economic diversification. When you run a small government, you don’t have to raise taxes because, you can provide the services that the community needs. And in my specific case, I have a four-point plan that anyone can access through mildredformayor2010.com. In my four-point plans to stimulate the economy, one of my objectives is to boost tourism by lowering taxes and offering tax incentives. I want to diversify the economy to protect against future recessions and I will convene an economic diversification and growth summit to explore ways that Orange County can further diversify the local economy. I’m truly a believer of small business and I want to build a strengthened partnership and promote tax incentives to ensure that the backbone of our economy remains small businesses. I also want to make sure that we can retrain laid-off workers and position them to get better and higher paying jobs. One of the areas that I want to impact with retraining is in clean tech, in order to bring jobs to Orange County. Also, I want to expedite a recovery of real estate by stimulating economic growth. We have around 31,000 houses in foreclosure in Orange County and we have more than 94,000 in the pipeline. We don’t even know if we’re going to build them. So we need to stabilize the market in order to stimulate the economy.
WONO: Commissioner, in order to have a balanced budget, the Orange County 2011 fiscal budget would likely have to be cut by around 7%. The fiscal 2010 budget was already cut, so where do you anticipate the new cuts could come from?
Mildred Fernandez: Well, only yesterday we had a long discussion on that at the County Commission. I truly believe that, the government budget can be streamlined much more than is currently the case. For example, Orange County is paying $90 million in health insurance for employees; not even IBM does that, and IBM is a billion dollar company. So, one of the things that we need to do is make sure that we are using the taxpayer’s money appropriately. I was shocked when I learned that $90 million was being spent just on healthcare insurance for employees. You don’t see that anymore, much less in government. We need to streamline all of those programs that give very little return on the investment, so that we have the resources available for two things: (i) to help balance the budget and close the $70 million gap and (ii) to provide services like public safety. For my part, public safety is the reason why government exists and it is my hope we will not have to cut the budget in this area. So, if we do all those things and streamline expenditures where there is waste, including looking at those big salaries that some in government are making, we will have the money available for the important services that we need to provide to Orange County citizens.
WONO: A recent report by Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida revealed that hunger is a huge problem in Central Florida. And the Food Bank has seen a 100% increase in meals served since 2006. What’s being done about hunger and poverty, particularly in Orange County?
Mildred Fernandez: That’s a great question, because I am very much involved with Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida. One of the things that we’re working on is to have BJ, which is a private sector company, donate money to the Harvest Food Bank. And we need to make sure that we have public- private partnerships to ensure that we don’t have hunger in Orange County. But it’s interesting and a travesty that, we spent $787 billion with a ‘B’, on a stimulus bill and yet our neighbors are going hungry. There are numerous faith-based and non-profit groups helping to take care of our fellow citizens and they deserve a great deal of credit for the amazing work they do. Our citizens should be volunteers and donate to those charities. And I’m very, very proud to say that our charities and faith-based churches here in Orange County are doing a great, great job. One of the things that I work with the private sector on and specifically, the Orlando Magic is, every year we partner to donate over 200 turkeys for under privileged families during Thanksgiving. I get very emotional every year, because I see that we’re giving something to those that are in need.
WONO: Commissioner, you were born and raised in Puerto Rico , I believe, and as you know, minorities, particularly Latinos and more so African-Americans face higher levels of joblessness currently. Would you think that your background and socialization bring a unique perspective to the challenges faced by these groups and if so, in what way?
Mildred Fernandez: Absolutely. My plan for Orange County will benefit citizens of every race and background; because I’m a Latino, it doesn’t mean that I only serve that community. I serve every community we have in Orange County because, we’re very, very diverse. Our entire community is suffering and we must take every step to stimulate the economy and add jobs.
One of the things that I’m working very, very hard on is business contracts for minority women. We must have the same participation for all racial groups. One of the things I did was, commission a study which was undertaken by the University of Central Florida, to look at our programs. Recommendations were made to the Orange County Commission on how we could improve those programs, making sure that every community has the same opportunity to succeed, because if everybody succeeds, we have a better community. And I think that my background as a retired IBM executive gives me the experience necessary to lead our local economic recovery.
WONO: You have said that one of your priorities is economic gardening. What specific measures would you adopt to help develop and grow small businesses into larger ones?
Mildred Fernandez: Well, I am running for Mayor, because Orange County needs a leader that is committed to growing our local economy and reducing taxes. I have a four-point plan for accomplishing those goals, namely, to: (i) stimulate Orange County economy through lower taxes and economic diversification (ii) ensure that the Orange County government is more efficient and transparent (iii) implement a plan to reclaim first place in tourism by adopting innovative policies and (iv) support a vibrant and sustainable transportation system that reduces congestion without tax and toll increases. I believe that my four-point plan will stimulate the economy, ensuring that we grow from the inside to the outside and that’s what economy gardening is all about.
WONO: Commissioner that leads me to my next question, which has to do with rail transportation. Last month Florida received $1.2 billion in federal funds to support high speed rail and SunRail is moving closer to becoming a reality. How do you anticipate that SunRail would impact Orange County?
Mildred Fernandez: Well, I strongly believe that public transportation, like the SunRail project, will not only support our economy, but also bring further development. When the governor in the special session and Florida legislature made a decision to move forward with SunRail, Orange County put in place an agreement to support SunRail after the 8th year. The first seven years of SunRail will be supported by the Department of Transportation. It’s important that Orange County support SunRail, but I will not agree to any tax increases for this. I don’t believe that Orange County citizens ought to be burdened with higher taxes. So, we need to work on how we are going to fund SunRail, given that there are agreements already in place.
WONO: In 2002, Florida Class-size Amendment was voted on and efforts have been underway to implement those requirements. Some argue that it would cost the state billions for schools to fully comply. What’s your view? Orange County and a few other counties were given class-size citations and could lose millions from their budgets. How do you see that playing out?
Mildred Fernandez: Well, I’m very passionate about education. I’m a mom of five, and I’m very proud to say that as a single parent, I was able to raise my five kids and they all have college education. So, there are two areas where budget cuts should come last and that is education and public safety. We must ensure that our children have the highest quality of education possible. The future of our county, state and community depends upon it. So we as a community have a very tough decision to make when it comes to meeting mandates in a down economy. I believe every government budget can be streamlined. We simply cannot afford to maintain high levels of spending, especially when the economy is in recession. When Orange County families are forced to cut their budget, the government has the responsibility to do the same. I’m very, very passionate about education and one of the things that I have done in Orange County for all our kids is, to broker a partnership with IBM. The company makes grants to schools in order to continue educating our kids and what I would like to ensure is that, all the kids in Orange County have the same opportunity.
WONO: Florida opened its doors to Haitians following the devastated earthquake in January. What has been the impact on Orange County?
Mildred Fernandez: Well, I was the first Commissioner to send a memo to the Mayor of Orange County asking for a meeting with all the support areas to help the Haitian community. Initially, the federal government’s response to the Haiti crisis was disorganized. Florida schools, hospitals and charity groups have been helping far more Haitians than all other states. This has added to the strain on government resources, at a time when we are all cutting budgets. I have to commend Florida Hospital for the great partnership they developed with this Commissioner in order to help our neighbors of the Haitian community. We have been working very, very closely sending doctors and nurses to help our fellow citizens.
WONO: In 2000, you established a Hispanic Scholarship Fund for Women. What are the fund’s accomplishments to-date?
Mildred Fernandez: Well, that fund is for Hispanic professional and business women and that idea has spread to other communities. In other communities grants are made for women in order to continue college and that’s important. We entered into a partnership with Valencia Community College, where the college will match the funds of our organization, aimed at increasing the number of women attending college. At the end of the day, that squares with my vision of ensuring that our kids, all the kids in Orange County have the same opportunity to excel in their own community.
WONO: You have been County Commissioner now for more than five years, I believe. What would you have liked to see accomplished by the Board but it just didn’t happen? And is there anything that might have been done differently?
Mildred Fernandez: I wish we would have done more to cut taxes and reduce the size of government. As I mentioned before, I’m convinced that this will help to stimulate our economy. Also, we still need to cut more spending and eliminate waste in Orange County. I am very, very strict on the various presentations that we’re hearing right now at the County Commission, asking tough questions on how we can reduce government, in order to provide the best service possible to the citizens of Orange County.
WONO: You’re now running for Mayor of Orange County, and I know that you talked a little bit earlier about your four-point plan. Is there anything else that you would like to add to your vision for Orange County? Would you like to expand on your four-point plan?
Mildred Fernandez: Absolutely. The campaign is going great. I was just endorsed by the governor of Puerto Rico, who is a true believer in small government and low taxes. And I am very, very honored that he endorsed me last week. I am the candidate with the most detailed plan for strengthening the Orange County economy and reforming government. My chief opponent does not have a plan. My plan has been very well received by voters. I am confident that we’re gaining the necessary momentum to win August and then in November. So I am blessed, I am surrounded by people in the community that are helping me get my message out –low taxes, small government. And I think that’s going to be the key to my being successful in the mayoral race.
WONO: In fact, Commissioner, I think you anticipated my last question. So will we be seeing Orange County Mayor Mildred Fernandez come November?
Mildred Fernandez: Oh, absolutely. There is no question. And I’m very blessed, because I am guided by the Lord. I pray and I know that’s what he wants, because he knows that, all I’m going to do is a great job in serving the citizens of Orange County. If truth be told, I would like to lead Orange County, making it better than is currently the case.
WONO: Thank you very much, Commissioner.
Mildred Fernandez: Thank you, too.
More About Commissioner Mildred Fernandez
Commissioner Mildred Fernandez was elected to the Board of County Commissioners District 3 in November 2004. Commissioner Fernandez made history by being elected as the first Puerto Rican-born Orange County Commissioner. Prior to being an elected official, Commissioner Fernandez was elected to the Soil and Water Conservation Board, District 2, in 2002 and served on the Orange County Nuisance and Abatement Board in 2002.
Commissioner Fernandez is an IBM retiree. She brings a corporate mindset to the commission. In addition to her elected duties, Commissioner Fernandez serves as the Chair for the Transportation Disadvantaged Local Coordinating Board for MetroPlan Orlando, board member for MetroPlan Orlando, board member of Citizen’s Commission of Children, board member of Orange County Community Action Board, board member of the Orlando Health Women’s Advisory Council, board member of the Clear Channel Orlando Local Advisory Board, and past board member for Lynx. Prior to being elected, she was already an active member of our community. For example, she is a member of the Orlando Business & Professional Women Association, member of the National Association for Female Executives, co-founder and past president of the Hispanic Professional & Business Women Association, member of the American Cancer Society Advisory Board, volunteer for Harbor House for battered women, member of the Hispanic Development Center for Cancer, volunteer for Beta Center (Social Services), and member of Altrusa Club of Orlando.
Commissioner Fernandez is a member of the Good Shepherd Catholic Church and a proud parent of five professional children.
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