The November race for the District 5 seat on the County Commission will pit incumbent Democrat Chris Kingsley against one of three Republican challengers who are set to face off in the Aug. 26 primary election.
The field is comprised of former Brooksville fire Chief Jim Adkins, Wal-Mart Distribution Center training and development manager William "Billy'' Healis and Michael Robinson, a retired investigator and law enforcement officer.
The Republican candidates offer a range of suggestions on how to make county government more accountable, more efficient and more customized to serve the needs of Hernando residents.
Adkins, 59, ran an unsuccessful campaign for County Commission in 2004. His interest was spurred when he saw how much his tax bill had gone up at that time.
He said he still believes county residents are overtaxed and overregulated. His plan is to separate the county's needs from its wants, just as he does in his own agricultural business. He cites that experience; his governmental service; his knowledge of law enforcement, county codes and rules, and equipment maintenance; as well as his "desire to work for the people,'' as reasons why voters should pick him.
He was concerned when he learned how much money the county had set aside in reserves, especially in enterprise funds such as utilities.
"I've been in government long enough to know what you plan today is going to cost more tomorrow,'' Adkins said. "What I think government should do, if they have a need … if you have that money in reserve to spend, it needs to be done as quick as possible to keep the cost down.''
Adkins also voiced concerns about how badly businesses and other nonhomesteaded properties have been hit as property taxes have soared. He said he would favor further tax-rate reductions.
"It needs to come down,'' he said.
He cited the need for the county to rid itself of the mind-set that whatever is left at the end of the budget year should be spent. At the end of last budget year, he said, county officials bought a truckload of computers to upgrade the hardware in the county government building.
"Nobody can convince me that they all need to be replaced at the same time,'' he said.
Healis, 35, said he and his friends first started talking about the commission seat when he kept seeing negative media reports about the County Commission. His personal interest in running for office was sparked by his work with various community groups such as the Rotary, the Kiwanis and the chamber of commerce.
"I think I've found what I'm really passionate about and that is doing the right thing and helping out the community,'' he said.
Healis, who has worked for Wal-Mart since 1994, acknowledged that he has a lot to learn about county government, but said he is a quick study.
"I know how to make a right decision,'' he said.
A Florida native who graduated from Hernando High School, Healis said he would give some of his commission salary back to the community. He said the fact that he will keep his Wal-Mart job would make it easier for him to make the right decisions.
"I'm not here for the job. I have a job,'' he said. "I'm here to run to make Hernando a better place''
Healis' employment by Wal-Mart has raised questions about his candidacy, since the retailer has been active building stores in the county — sometimes in controversial locations. He said he wouldn't vote on issues where he had a conflict.
"I'm not Wal-Mart. That's just what I do. It's not who I am,'' he said.
Healis said county government needs to cut spending, and that constitutional officers need to work with county government to trim their own spending.
"They need to be held accountable for their own budget as well,'' he said. "They're elected officials like county commissioners.''
He would not oppose a move toward charter government, but does not believe it will fix the problems with local government. He said government needs to learn to save more tax dollars and commissioners need to learn how to put politics aside for the good of the county.
Healis said his personality meshes well with being a commissioner.
"I'm very outgoing," he said. "I make friends wherever I go. I talk to strangers. I've always been kind of a politician type, but genuine.
"Maybe I'm naive," he added. "Maybe I'm an optimist. But I think that I can change the way people feel about their elected officials.''
The third candidate in the primary is Robinson, whose wife, Nancy, served previously on the County Commission. He is a strong proponent of charter government. He sees it as a way for the people of Hernando County to chart their own destiny.
They could write a charter, for example, with provisions for a strong mayor, he said, which would allow one person to be responsible for making critical decisions about county operations. There could be term limits or recall procedures. Charter government would offer a better way to keep county officials accountable, Robinson argued.
"You have somebody there who is going to make the decisions,'' he said. "Now if you don't like them, you can vote them out of office.
Robinson, 66, is a former investigator for the Florida Department of Veteran Affairs and a former officer with the Philadelphia Police Department. He ran unsuccessfully in 2000 for sheriff with no party affiliation. He does not currently live in District 5.
He favors an advocacy program in which the county could bring people facing foreclosure on their homes together with agencies that could help. He also is pushing a teen certification program in which high school students would be taught how to respond in emergencies.
Such initiatives are needed, he said, and the current commissioners are not getting the job done. "Nobody's coming up with ideas,'' he said.
Robinson questions how Healis will find time to be a county commissioner, a Wal-Mart supervisor and a father to his young family.
"Something has got to give,'' he said.
But Healis answers the criticism by saying he has a flexible work schedule and that he believes commissioners need to spend as much time as possible in the community, not at the government center.
Robinson said his experience qualifies him for the commission.
"Everybody runs for County Commission with whatever their backgrounds happen to be, and mine is investigation,'' Robinson said.
He vowed to work with the county administrator to find out how each element of county government works and to cut waste.
He also suggests that the current number of department heads needs to be slashed. Robinson would recommend a county administrator, three assistants and six department heads.
"You would cut your staff in half, and you would never have to worry about having a search for county administrator because you have three who could take over,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.