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With no re-election plans, Commissioner Dave Russell looks forward to 'one job'

BROOKSVILLE — Dave Russell found himself doing some deep soul searching as the calendar turned to 2013.

Fourteen years in public office — while trying to run his business on weekends and evenings and still find time to be with his family — were taking their toll.

"Something had to give,'' Russell said.

His conclusion: It was time "to go back to having one job.''

After eight years in the Florida House and eight more on the Hernando County Commission by the time his term ends in November 2014, Russell will walk away from the public life instead of seeking a third term.

"It's been a real privilege. It has,'' said Russell, who currently is chairman of the commission. "It's been very interesting.''

He doesn't plan to let his commitment to taxpayers slide over the next year and a half. There are more tough budget battles to fight, though he's hopeful the process will be easier this year if the economy continues to improve.

"I'd like for that last budget I work on to be static so that the current revenue at the existing millage rate will equal expenses,'' Russell said. "We would create a budget based on need and not income.''

Beyond the budget, there are other issues to resolve.

From developing protocols for testing unmanned drones to revamping the county's former housing similarity ordinance to mapping out how the county will deal with its feral cat population, Russell doesn't expect too many dull moments as his tenure winds down.

"I'm in it for another 19 months,'' he said. "I'm at it 110 percent up to that last day, Nov. 18 (in 2014).''

• • •

The Russell family came to Hernando County in 1982 from Jacksonville. Russell's father, also named David, opened the county's first Pinch-a-Penny pool care business. In 1986, the governor appointed him to the County Commission, but in 1988 he lost the election to keep the seat.

David Jr. was in the pool business, too, first his father's and then his own. It remains the family business. But he also was interested in other things, like aviation. His efforts to build an experimental airplane from a kit gained him some media attention in 1994.

Russell landed on the Hernando County Aviation Authority. There, he became fascinated with transportation and how the Florida Department of Transportation worked with partners to build needed infrastructure in growing Florida communities.

"It piqued my interest, and I wanted to pursue some issues further,'' Russell said.

Enter fellow Aviation Authority member Gary Schraut. He encouraged Russell to take that interest and parlay it into a run for the state House.

Russell won his first election in 1998 and landed in the middle of the transportation issues that so interested him. Those issues and a myriad of others kept him busy for four consecutive terms in Tallahassee before term limits forced him out.

"I was turned out of the Legislature,'' he said. "I felt like I wasn't done yet.''

• • •

Even as Russell was completing his last term in the House, he was paying attention to issues back home. He was stumped by the County Commission's reluctance to consolidate emergency dispatching.

He decided it was time to join the local discussion and bring what he had learned in Tallahassee to Hernando County. He ran successfully for the County Commission in 2006.

Russell pushed strongly not just for combined dispatching, but also the merger of fire departments across the county, something that brought picketers to the front door of his pool business and critics to commission meetings.

He also wanted to see the county finally sell the old Brooksville Regional Hospital site, the maintenance of which was draining county coffers, and he pushed for the consolidation of the county's emergency management office with the Sheriff's Office.

As the housing bubble came and went, Russell and other commissioners found themselves trapped in the era of Government Gone Wild, an organized effort to take the commission to task for overspending and allowing taxes to rise with increased home values.

Commissioners cut tax rates in 2007, but still got criticized for not doing enough. In the years of declining revenue that have followed, there has been continued criticism by some of too much spending and not enough cutting.

Russell said he has tried to weigh everyone's point of view and make the right choices.

"If you know the right thing to do, you just hang on to it,'' he said.

Looking back at the last half-dozen difficult years, Russell believes the balance was struck correctly.

By cutting the property tax rate as the housing bubble burst, he said, residents have seen some $80 million in tax relief, not counting savings from falling home values.

Russell also points to savings in various county departments. There have been reduced costs at the jail because the sheriff took over the operation and savings in the Utilities Department.

By downsizing and consolidating, "we've been able to make do with less,'' he said. "I believe we're a healthier, more productive organization than we were five or six years ago, albeit smaller.''

Russell is always quick to add a caveat: "It's very similar to what has happened in the private sector.''

• • •

Schraut is disappointed by his friend's plan to leave politics.

"I am extremely unhappy with his decision," he said. "I'm going to make every effort over the next two years to talk him out of it."

But Schraut said he understood.

"You know what, you get tired," he said. "Your life is not your own.''

He termed Russell "a great legislator and a great statesman for Hernando County.''

Russell's life experience is what has helped make him so effective, according to Schraut.

"Dave is very real world. He's a guy with hands-on business experience,'' Schraut said. "When you talk to him, he gets it because he has lived it.''

Russell also brought to the table a vast list of contacts from his days in Tallahassee, something that benefits Hernando County in a variety of ways. It ranges from knowing some of the people he negotiated with recently over the new name for the airport to having good contacts at the Department of Transportation when road-building issues arise.

"Some people go to Tallahassee or become a county commissioner and enjoy the position more than the job,'' Schraut said. "Dave does the job.''

Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Hernando County Republican Executive Committee, also lauds Russell's work.

"I want to thank Dave Russell for all his hard work and commitment to make Hernando County a better place, not just for the residents but for the business community,'' Ingoglia said.

He calls Russell a friend and said he frequently talks over issues with him.

"He's been a leader on the commission,'' said Ingoglia, who hopes strong Republican candidates will come forward to replace Russell. "Whenever a leader like Dave leaves, everyone has to step up.''

• • •

Russell, who is 57, says his post-commission life will remain busy. Already, he has rewritten the business and advertising plans for his pool company — and is starting to see some results.

He jokes that he is the "maintenance technician" for his 20-acre horse farm, a job that involves shovels and a tool kit. He and his wife, Michele, have two grown sons and three granddaughters.

"I am looking forward to spending more time with them,'' he said.

While he enjoyed his time in Tallahassee, Russell denies persistent rumors that he will run again for the state House when term limits open up Rep. Rob Schenck's seat next year.

Not only does he have no interest in starting over as a freshman legislator; Russell said he truly is ready to get back to his private life. A run for the House, he said, "that's just not in the cards.''

As for his legacy as a legislator and commissioner, Russell hopes people will say "that I've worked hard toward certain goals and I haven't let adversity discourage me from pursuing those goals with passion.''

A survivor of six election cycles, he said he wants to go out on a high note.

"It's not a bad thing to step down,'' Russell said. "There is life after politics.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

With no re-election plans, Commissioner Dave Russell looks forward to 'one job' 04/26/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 9:16pm]

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