Planning the future of Fort Walton Beach

Public safety is always a top concern for citizens of any community.

I was honored to be involved with the "It Just Makes Cents" campaign in November 2018 when the voters of Okaloosa County voted 64-36% to create a Local Option Sales Tax to modernize our aging infrastructure.

These additional funds allow Okaloosa County leadership and all cities within the County, the opportunity to truly plan for the future with funds specifically geared towards infrastructure, stormwater management, and public safety. Important to note that these 'planning for the future' funds have previously never been available in Okaloosa County, and until recently, it showed. 

It should be no surprise that public safety has always been a focus of FWB City leadership through discussions at strategic planning workshops and budget policy meetings since, at least, 2012. Knowing that the City now had a new half-cent source of revenue allowed the Council to truly begin planning for the future. 

The City of Fort Walton Beach Mission is 'To enhance and protect the community by providing quality services'. Therefore, as part of the City Council's 2019 Strategic Planning sessions, the goal was to create a guide to move the City forward. The number ONE issue addressed at the 2019 Strategic Planning sessions was the importance of Public Safety: 'Strategic Plan Strategy No. 1: A safe and livable community for citizens.' 

The City of Fort Walton Beach also has a Vision—'To be a recognized leader in the provision of community services.' To achieve the City's Vision, another strategy adopted in the Strategic Plan is to 'Maintain a well-trained, talented and engaged municipal workforce.' 

To be a leader in community services, the City MUST do all it can to retain and attract well-trained, committed employees. In 2019, the Council voted to implement a pay and classification study (previous study was in 2014). Pay and classification studies are used to confirm salaries are competitive, up to industry standards, and ensure the City is able to compete with surrounding agencies for talent. 

As I review the City's capital project lists benefiting public safety, secured through the Local Option Sales Tax Funds, I feel safer knowing they have purchased: a new fire engine and police vehicles; a virtual shooting simulator; and updated resources, and safety equipment for the Police Department (light towers, computer hardware/software, training platforms). The fire department has also received updated resources and lifesaving equipment (self-contained breathing apparatus, cardiac monitors/defibrillators, ballistic gear).

As Okaloosa County moves forward with investing in the County's public safety, doesn't it make sense for the City of Fort Walton Beach to do so as well so it can work hand in hand with our County services and ensure the residents of Fort Walton Beach are taken care of properly? The answer is a resounding "YES"!

So, how does the City of Fort Walton Beach achieve their Mission and Vision while incorporating the new half-cent opportunities AND planning for the future growth of our community while staying committed to lowering the City's millage rate?

What is the best way for the City to achieve their two biggest strategic goals, knowing that the Local Option Sales Tax ONLY allows them to make capital purchases, such as the equipment listed, but NOT the acquisition and retention of qualified personnel?

The implementation of the fire services assessment was the logical solution to sustaining a resilient workforce. The fire services assessment allowed the City to hire 6 new firefighters to man the new fire engine (purchased via half-cent); hire 3 new police officers, and implement the recommendations from the 2019 pay and classification study to correct pay and benefit deficiencies for City employees (bringing the City in line with area workforce competitors).

It is very important that our City leadership make certain that we are planning for our City's future. Our current City staff and the majority of elected officials have shown that they are willing to make up for past deficiencies and to achieve the mission and vision of the City as expressed by residents in the recent quality of life survey. 

With the upcoming City election on March 9th, I ask you to research and vote for the candidates who will support the current direction of the City of Fort Walton Beach as they continue to move us toward a brighter and safer future. 

Thank you,

Heather Ruiz
2021 Board Chair, Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce
Director of Digital Marketing, Bit-Wizards

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Heather Ruiz, Director of Digital Marketing
Heather L. Ruiz

Director of Digital Marketing

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