Republican candidate for District 3 commissioner Sarah Catala has a strong background in both agribusiness and county affairs. She is thrilled to run for that office and excited to serve the citizens of District 3. She said, “I intended to run for office when I accepted my current position (with Florida Department of Transportation).”
She came to Hendry County in 1992 from Chicago to work for the United States Sugar Corporation (USSC) as their Equipment Manager. Ms. Catala had worked for years with Case Corp. at its engineering facility in the Maxxum tractor line and travelled extensively field-testing tractors. This enabled her to work with local farmers, agribusinesses and dealerships. That experience brought her to Florida and ultimately USSC.
She looks back at her time with USSC as a “best learning experience from some of the most innovative people in the ag industry.” As Equipment Manager, Sarah was responsible for managing the entire equipment fleet (tractors, vehicles, cane harvestors, wagons, industrial equipment, and rolling stock). Part of this responsibility was preparing and managing a huge capital budget for the equipment. During her time there, she helped transition the Agriculture Equipment Shops from paper forms to a computer system, implemented an ag tractor rental-purchase program which completely changed the makeup of the tractor fleet to include tractors with cab and air while reducing the total number of tractors owned by USSC, directly reducing operating and SG&A costs by $20M via re-engineering processes, implemented an employee behavior based safety program, and was instrumental in establishing the Sugarland Auction as a means to dispose of USSC equipment. Sarah commented that at the time the auction began, no one could estimate how big the auction would grow much less its positive economic impact for the County. She served in many roles for USSC and was ultimately promoted to General Manager over three departments – facilities maintenance, field construction and agriculture equipment shops, supervising 360+ employees and multiple budgets.
She said that during her 14 years with USSC, she realized the importance of not just serving your customers, but supporting your employees. They are your team.
In 1997, she moved to the LaBelle area and became involved with her neighborhood. Unhappy with her inability to get important information on a neighborhood zoning change from the planning department, she put the affair to rest, but years later heard the county was looking for an associate land use planner and saw it as an opportunity to use her skills to improve her community.
She applied for the position, and in 2006, became Hendry County’s associate planner under County Planner Vince Cautero.
“It’s been one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she said. The position gave her the opportunity to meet a broad section of people from the county’s communities and to make a “positive impact for that department.”
When Sarah started to work, there were land use applications over 6 years old, and she was able to reduce the time to process and conduct hearings for land use applications to 60 days, depending on the request. She streamlined the departmental review process to 30 days and worked to get applications and land use information available online for the public. Sarah helped increase the focus on community planning to empower citizens to solve their problems, protect important community features and guide how a community will grow.
“I understand budget constraints,” Ms. Catala said, “and how the process should flow from a local level to the state level. There are many state mandates that a local government must adhere to.”
Sarah shouldered the role as sole planner for the County beginning in 2010 at a time when the County had many serious issues with the State regarding proposed development and no funding to bring in help. She negotiated four Stipulated Settlement Agreements with the State, wrote policies for the Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code, debated policies on a local and state level, conducted countless public hearings, prepared documents for the Board of County Commissioners with recommendation for their action, met with community groups, applied for planning grants and other funding sources to supplement a very limited budget.
Sarah notes that there are many external factors wanting to stymie growth, exert undue control and push their own personal agendas in the County and this is a critical time for the municipalities and the County to be unified.
Sarah says that County Commissions are one of the oldest forms of government in America. Generally, the Board of County Commissioners is the legislative branch and governing body of the local government. County Commissions perform legislative functions by developing policy for the management of that County – in short, they can write, debate and pass local laws. The Board legislates policy to protect the health, welfare, safety and quality of life for the Hendry County residents. They disseminate information to the public through ordinances and resolutions. As part of the governing body, the Board approves operating and capital budgets including a schedule of all County infrastructure projects. One of Ms. Catala’s roles was to prepare the County’s Capital Improvement Schedule.
“My qualifications and experience are the best fit for the position,” she notes, adding that she can provide the highest level of service that District 3 deserves.
Ms. Catala believes she can be effective in helping the county to create an environment that will attract new employers to relocate to Hendry County and reward/incentivize existing businesses to grow. She said there is a direct correlation between higher wages and an increase in the quality of life and it is time for the residents of District 3 and Hendry County to experience a higher standard in life.
“As planner, I have sat across from many solid businesses that were attracted to the County, but did not locate here for reasons such as lack of appropriate infrastructure. The County must go after target industries and be a partner to development. We cannot sit back and rely on someone else to plan and construct improvements.”
She hopes to identify “hot spots” for business growth and improve the infrastructure including water, sewer, transportation system, utilities and technology – internet capacity. There are still areas in the County that only have dial-up internet service.
When asked what problems she sees in the County, Ms. Catala stated she doesn’t see problems, only opportunities. One opportunity is to strengthen the County’s relationship with the media. Newspapers are a means to inform the public of important issues and highlight successes.
The media provides a layer of transparency between the local government and its citizens. Other opportunities include targeted communication to remote areas where residents do not have easy access to a newspaper or internet, expanding community planning, pertinent training for county staff and aligning the County’s products and services to match the changing demographics.
Ms. Catala is now working for Florida Department of Transportation, District One, as the Strategic Intermodal Systems and Growth Management Coordinator. District One is comprised of twelve counties ranging from Southwest Florida to Polk County. The Strategic Intermodal System (SIS) is the state’s largest and most significant transportation facilities. It is multimodal, meaning it is a transportation network comprised of highway, rail, transit, air, water and space facilities. She pointed out that Hendry County has four designated SIS highway facilities: US Hwy. 27, SR 80, SR 29 and SR 82. These are key corridors for moving people and freight on a local, regional and state level.
“Community is key to growth,” she said, and believes that she can bring it all together with policies that encourage connectivity. “This county is very dear to me,” she said, “with a very unique charm. There are amazing people who deserve preservation of their culture and history and of what’s good here.”
Working with people is, easily, the best part of what she does, Ms. Catala said. She believes in respecting people and helping them get the most out of their life.
The people of District 3 deserve to be represented by someone who is not willing to settle or throw their hands up, and certainly not willing to kick the can down the road. “I know I can best serve the people as Commissioner.”
You can contact candidate Sarah Catala through her cell phone: 863-517-4169.