BROOKSVILLE — With the final votes cast, counted, then recounted in last week's primary election, the smoke has cleared to reveal the lineup of hopefuls in the November races for Hernando County Commission.
It's a cast that, according to the candidates and others familiar with the local political landscape, could markedly change the face of the commission and the county itself, depending on who wins.
One common theme came across during interviews the Times conducted on Thursday and Friday: Voters need to study the candidates, think through the potential impact of their choices and then make sure to vote on Nov. 6.
While there are plenty of issues separating the candidates, the overriding focus has been — and likely will continue to be — the county's budget crisis. Property tax revenue is expected to continue to fall well into the next fiscal year, and possibly beyond.
The District 3 commission race got most of the attention last week when incumbent John Druzbick and challenger Jason Sager had identical vote totals when tabulations ended Tuesday night. The recount conducted Wednesday resulted in an eight-vote victory for Sager.
When Druzbick heard the result, he said he wished Sager the best.
But he said he would not support any other candidate in the race — at least for now — because he had not heard anyone offer solutions to the county's problems. There have been plenty of sound bites and rhetoric, he said, but none of those things will help the county out of its financial dilemma.
The commissioners who are elected in November, Druzbick said, "are going to be faced with some very, very difficult decisions.''
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Sager's ouster of Druzbick has some Hernando residents concerned about what the next commission could look like.
Commissioner Jim Adkins, who still faces a general election battle with Democrat Ramon Gutierrez, and Commissioner Wayne Dukes have been seen as a strong twosome, voting against increases in the property tax rate and acceptance of certain grants and outside government funding for projects.
Druzbick supported raising the tax rate this year to generate the same revenue as the county received last year, but Sager is adamantly opposed to increasing the tax rate. Sager also has talked about the need to reduce government intrusion into the lives of residents.
If Adkins and Sager both win election in November, the strong conservative bloc they would form with Dukes would be cemented, and that has some people worried about the future of some government services.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who dropped out of the Republican Party and chose not to seek re-election to his District 1 seat, said he feared a severe downsizing of services if Dukes, Adkins and Sager are all on the commission.
"It should be downright frightening to anyone who wants to live in a civilized society,'' Stabins said.
And while he said he has nothing against Sager, "his philosophy, his beliefs and his type of extremism is not in the best interest of our county or our country,'' Stabins said.
Stabins predicted a real possibility that the Republican candidates will sweep the ticket and blamed Republican Executive Committee chairman Blaise Ingoglia.
"The Republican Party has been hypnotized by a buffoon named Blaise Ingoglia, and his sickening tactics over the last five years have created the nomination of radical Republican candidates who, in a Republican-leaning county, almost certainly will win election in November,'' Stabins said.
While Sager's major-party opponent in November, Democrat Diane Rowden, has not sought Stabins' support, he said he would give it if she asked.
Paul Douglas said seating an ultra-conservative County Commission would send the community in the wrong direction. Douglas, former president of the local NAACP chapter, dropped out of the race for the District 5 commission seat this year, but already has prequalified as a Democrat for the District 4 seat in 2014.
He said he sees Adkins, Dukes and Sager "lining up one, two, three against being progressive. I see us going backward.''
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Arlene Glantz, the Democrat who will challenge Republican Nick Nicholson, independent Joseph Swilley and write-in candidate Jose Luis Monegro in November in the District 1 race, said she is concerned with what might happen with the commission as well.
"I don't think that an ultra-conservative government is a good thing,'' she said. "It's just going to lead to more of the same.''
Glantz said what the county really needs are commissioners able to articulate solutions and get away from the mind-set that the only choices in the budget crisis are to tax more or cut more. She said she has been working on ideas to generate more non-tax revenue for the county and is slated to speak to county staffers about the details this week.
"I've been listening to people, and it's same old, same old,'' Glantz said. "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you always got. We've got to start thinking creatively.''
In the District 5 race, Gutierrez said he worries that the county has not been moving forward and that cutting spending further will damage Hernando County's ability to attract new residents and businesses.
Having mass transit, such as THE Bus, is key in any place that is trying to attract business, he said, and having money to improve infrastructure is critical. If county assets such as libraries and parks were to close, "I would not want to live here,'' Gutierrez said. "It's time to go beyond party lines, time to look at it with realism.''
Rowden, a former county commissioner whom Druzbick defeated in 2008, said it is time the county started working on improving itself so that residents and businesses want to be part of the community.
"We want to preserve the Hernando County way of life, and we cannot do that with this slash-and-burn philosophy,'' she said.
Any move to cut parks, libraries, mosquito control, THE Bus or other services of that nature would be wrong, Rowden said.
"The infrastructure belongs to the people, and the people have been paying for it,'' she said.
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Sager sees his philosophy not as radical, but as simple. But he said he knows he has rubbed some people the wrong way.
"I've taken a lot of heat from my own party,'' he said as he waited for the results of the recount last week. "I'm not a Democrat-versus-Republican debate kind of person. I'm a pro-freedom candidate.''
He said he believes "in individual freedom, the freedom to do whatever you want to do as long as you're not interfering with your neighbor.''
He is an avowed advocate of parking THE Bus and continuing to downsize county government as revenues decline.
"When government is doing things for our own best interests, that's where we get into trouble,'' Sager said.
Ingoglia speaks highly of the Republican commission candidates on the November ballot. And, he notes, "we are a conservative community,'' and it is natural to elect conservative candidates.
In 2008, he pointed out, when Barack Obama was at the top of the ballot and other Democrats were winning elections across the country, Hernando voters swept two entrenched Democrats — Rowden and Chris Kingsley — off the County Commission.
"It's more proof that people are rejecting the idea of big government and that people were wanting smaller government,'' Ingoglia said. "Just look at the gap between Democrat voters and Republican voters in this county.''
He noted that when he took over the chairmanship of the party in mid 2009, the gap was 720. Now it is more than 4,000.
Adkins said he believes the county is very close to hitting the point where it will be difficult to cut much more from the budget. While he stands by his conservative roots, he said that people who are concerned that county government will be gutted by a more conservative board, "as far as I'm concerned, I don't think they really have much to worry about.''
Dukes, the current commission chairman, said there is "no plot'' to stack the commission with ultra-conservative members, but he is resolved when it comes to his opposition to fixing the budget crisis by raising the tax rate.
"I have made my feelings clear from the beginning. We're not going to use the tax option,'' Dukes said.
He did acknowledge that, if Adkins and Sager are elected, he will have more support than he does on the current board for his initiatives.
And he said that, with his efforts to identify services and personnel in county government that are not mandated by law, "I have no doubt that a lot of (county employees) are worried.''
If revenues continue to fall, more cuts will have to be made, Dukes said.
"But it's not going to be vigilantes going in and cutting people's heads off.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.