Polk County’s two newest county commissioners hit the ground running six months ago, taking office within minutes of taking their oath. Six months later, both Rick Wilson and Martha Santiago say they are still in the midst of a steep learning curve.
“I knew Polk County was big and the county was involved in a lot, but it’s almost overwhelming how much there is to learn,” said Santiago, who took office in November.
Santiago represents District 4, which includes most of Winter Haven, Dundee, Lake Hamilton, Davenport and stretches north, through the burgeoning northeast area of the county around Four Corners, as well as east to Poinciana at the county line.
Her comments were echoed by Wilson, who had a month’s lead time over Santiago, taking office via gubernatorial appointment and a primary victory in October after term-limited Commissioner Melony Bell opted to resign to pursue her successful campaign for the state house.
“I’m still in information overload,” Wilson, a Bartow native, said. “Polk County is such a big operation and the county takes care of so much.”
Wilson’s District 2 is the largest in land area and includes the cities of Bartow, Fort Meade and Frostproof. The district stretches east-west from county line to county line.
Both Wilson and Santiago are relatively new to the political scene, but Santiago had a leg up in that area — she ran for the commission in 2006, but didn’t make the cut back then. In November, she claimed the seat held for eight years by Todd Dantzler, who was termed out.
“I’m a quick learner — and it’s a good thing,” Santiago said. “There is so, so very much information to take in, there are so many departments that handle so many different areas. It’s hard to wrap your head around it all at first, but I’m feeling more comfortable every day.”
Both commissioners have broad experience in management, with Santiago managing segments of Polk State College, were she was provost, and Wilson handling his family’s ranch and heavy equipment business following a 13-year career as a NASCAR race driver.
While the fledgling commissioners are still in the getting-up-to-speed mode, both maintain that their experiences in administration, business operations and in the communities they serve have given them the tools to make decisions right out of the gate.
“If I’m not sure about an issue, I ask questions,” Santiago says. “I’m not going to vote on something I don’t understand and get what the impacts will be.”
Wilson adds, “I do very little talking, but I will ask questions until I’m comfortable making an informed decision. … It’s going to take time, but I’m learning more every day and feeling more comfortable.”
Both commissioners say that economic growth and stability issues are constant countywide and that public safety is their priority.
“We have to protect our people and see that they have the best services possible. They must have enough law enforcement, enough fire and rescue and enough utilities,” Santiago explains. “Those are our main priorities.”
“Transportation is an issue too,” says Wilson. “We’re already behind on that and we can never get it done in time. By the time we get things done, we’re already planning on how to improve what we’ve just done.”
While Wilson’s district is most of the southern half of the county, he says he doesn’t look at things from a district basis.
“I look at the whole county,” Wilson said. “If somebody calls about a problem in another district, I do what I can to help them.”
Right now, the commissioners are tackling their first budget preparation.
“I’ve been doing a lot of homework and learning a lot,” Santiago continues, “$1.5 billion is a lot of money, so I’m diligent about it. It’s hard to determine who needs it most.”
Wilson isn’t quite so shy about the county’s mammoth budget.
“When I drove in NASCAR, I was exposed to corporations with that kind of money, so it wasn’t shocked at the big numbers,” he says. “But we also break it down by departments and analyze it that way.”
Both commissioners said they have had to tighten up their time management since taking office. Additionally, Santiago says just getting around is an issue.
“My office is here in Bartow, but some days I have to go to Davenport or Poinciana and it’s over an hour’s drive,” she said. “It can be challenging.”
“Fortunately, we have great staff and they have all been willing to help us out and things are getting easier,” Wilson added.
“It’s been an exciting six months,” Santiago adds, “And I really love this job and serving people.”