Saturday, February 24, 2018
News Roundup

Dan DeWitt: Sager's primary campaign fliers missing accuracy

I know it's not nice to drop the L-bomb. I know I'm supposed to use more polite terms such as "distortion" or "misrepresentation." But if you look at the claims in Jason Sager's last-minute campaign advertisements, I hope you can at least appreciate how difficult it is for me to restrain myself.

A campaign flier that arrived at voters' homes prior to Tuesday's primary election, and a nearly identical advertisement that appeared in this publication, both pose the standard challenger's question:

Are we better off than we were four years ago?

The answer, predictably, is "no," and the person voters were invited to blame for this was Sager's now-defeated opponent, District 3 County Commissioner John Druzbick, who is identified not just as the incumbent but the "16 YR incumbent."

As anybody with a passing interest in local politics knows, Druzbick was elected to the commission for the first time in 2008. Sager — who will face Democrat Diane Rowden, no-party candidate Greg Sheldon and write-in candidate Tanya Marsh in November — said he included Druzbick's service on the Hernando School Board, from 1994 to 2006.

The word "incumbent," according to Webster's, applies to someone "currently holding a given (my emphasis) office."

I understand how tempting it is for Sager — who disdains public employment even as he seeks it himself — to lump together all of his opponent's time in elected office. But it's not accurate.

It is, however, far from the least accurate statement in these ads.

For example, they say the current unemployment rate is 13.4 percent. Actually, June's unemployment rate, the most recent available when the ads came out, was 11.1 percent, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity.

Sager's number from four years ago, 8.5 percent, is about right for the summer of 2008. But Druzbick didn't take office until November 2008, when unemployment was 10.2 percent, meaning that he presided over a net rise in the jobless rate of less than 1 percentage point, not the nearly 5 percentage points cited in the ad.

"When that (flier) arrived in my mailbox, I thought, 'Where's he getting that number?' " Dave Hamilton, program manager for the Pasco-Hernando Workforce Board, said of the unemployment rate Sager cited.

Sager said a supporter got it from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the bureau's website — bls.gov/data — shows an identical rate for June as the state office's: 11.1 percent.

Think that's a whopper? How about this?

Under a header "Moody's Bond Downgrades," there's this brief statement: "2008-2012: 9 times (so far)."

Sager said this referred to the number of Hernando County government bond downgrades by Moody's Investors Service during that period. A supporter who is an accountant and has access to Moody's ratings looked it up for him, he said.

In fact, said county finance director Amy Gillis, "We've had only had one bond downgrade in the 26 years I've been here."

Is it possible a few slipped by unnoticed?

"Absolutely not," she said.

A Moody's spokesman, David Jacobson, found only eight bonds issued with the name "Hernando County" anywhere in the title. Only one, besides the utilities bond Gillis mentioned, had been downgraded, and that appeared to have been issued by a nonprofit corporation, he said.

"You add those up, and it doesn't come to whatever number (Sager) is claiming," Jacobson said.

Sager said he would double-check with the researchers who dug up the employment and bond figures and get back to me. As of the end of the workday Friday, he hadn't.

Even these aren't the biggest of the misrepresentations. Because of the higher stakes, that distinction goes to budget figures apparently meant to support Sager's claim that the county is wildly spending money squeezed out of struggling taxpayers .

Four years ago, Sager's ads say, the county's expenditures were $254 million. Now they are $420 million.

He took these figures from the current year's budget. Problem is, the 2009 figure is labeled "actual" expenditures while its 2012 counterpart is labeled "approved budget." The big difference? The approved budget must include all of the county's reserves — $115 million worth — because the county can't know how much it will spend until the year is over, said budget manager George Zoettlein.

Not that the county can spend the great majority of its reserves.

"At least 90 percent is restricted and can only be spent for particular purposes," he said.

This includes money collected from gas taxes that must be applied to roads and funds set aside to close and build new cells at the landfill so that, sometime in the future, we don't have to let garbage stack up at the curb. So the county isn't stockpiling our money.

It's following rules that, thankfully, ensure it spends like the ant, not the grasshopper.

How about the tax that people worry about most, the property tax on their homes? That money goes into the general fund, which pays for high-profile services, such as law enforcement, code enforcement, planning, government administration, parks and libraries.

The amount in that fund has dropped from $37 million to $32 million since 2009 — about 13.5 percent — confirming what we've heard in countless budget discussions: The county is strapped.

Back in July, Zoettlein sent an email to Sager explaining the budget numbers, and, according to Zoettlein, Sager's response was: "You're giving me too much information."

So he knew the truth and chose to say something different. Though that usually brings another word to mind, I'll just call it an intentional falsehood.

Taken together with, for example, his previous disingenuous insinuation that Druzbick just might have Communist leanings, it doesn't say good things about Sager's character.

And that makes this celebratory tweet from Sager on Wednesday even stranger: "It's official!!!!!! Sager wins by 8! All the glory goes to God and all of you who sent me prayers today."

If God really does intervene in Hernando commission races, which I doubt, why would he help Sager?

Follow Dan DeWitt at [email protected].

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