BROOKSVILLE — It's crunch time for candidates seeking to distinguish themselves from their opponents before the Nov. 2 elections — and when that happens, sparks often fly.
It happened Thursday evening as candidates faced off during the Hernando County Chamber of Commerce's candidate forum at the county government center. Candidates for Congress, the state Legislature, the County Commission and the School Board showed up to field questions from editors of the Hernando Times and Hernando Today.
Republican Sheriff Rich Nugent and Democrat Jim Piccillo tossed barbs back and forth as they tried to win support in their race for the District 5 Congressional seat held by Brooksville Republican Ginny Brown-Waite.
When asked to distinguish himself from Piccillo, Nugent called himself a proven conservative who gave back $2 million from his budget to Hernando County's general fund last year. He said he is the only one in the race who has led an organization of some 500 employees.
Most of those savings came from the wages and benefits of employees, Piccillo said. The 36-year-old small business consultant and former financial auditor for HSBC Bank noted that the sheriff closed community substations. Piccillo also claimed that violent crime has increased in Hernando.
"That's not exactly the type of fiscal conservativeness that these people are looking for," Piccillo said, also noting that Nugent has blasted the federal stimulus plan but took at least $268,000 in stimulus funding for the sheriff's office.
Nugent cited statistics showing the crime rate has dropped in Hernando in the last 18 months. The safety of the county has not suffered from his budget cuts, he said.
"We didn't lay off a single person. We didn't give pay raises. It did not affect quality of life in Hernando County," Nugent said, to loud applause.
Asked how his life experience has prepared him for Congress, Piccillo said he served in the Army and helped manage hundreds of millions of dollars for HSBC.
"The difference is that I've got the small business experience to help those small businesses start and grow," he said.
Piccillo reminded voters that Nugent got into the race by quietly agreeing to run in Brown-Waite's place and filing just before the deadline. He said Nugent might as well be the incumbent.
"Citrus County voted out every single incumbent, and those people that think that this race is any different are sadly mistaken," Piccillo said.
Asked how to get the economy back on track, Nugent said he supports dropping government spending to 2008 levels.
"Everything we do in Congress should be predicated on the fact that you don't spend more than you make," he said.
He called the health care reform bill "a job killer" and said business owners are afraid to invest in their operations because they're uncertain what will happen if the Democrats still control Congress in 2011.
Piccillo touted his economic revitalization plan that aims to bring investors and research universities together to make the district a haven for clean energy manufacturing.
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Rob Schenck and Diane Rowden rarely saw eye to eye when they shared the dais as Hernando County commissioners. Schenck, R-Spring Hill, and the Democrat Rowden were back behind the same dais Thursday, this time pitched in a battle for the District 44 state House seat Schenck has held for four years.
Asked how to help small businesses in a devastated economy, Schenck said he would continue to work with the Legislature to pass bills that would "cut red tape" that stymies small businesses from growing.
Rowden, who served on the County Commission from 2000 to 2008, noted that unemployment in the county has tripled since Schenck was elected to the House.
"I haven't seen in the last four years any jobs that have been brought forward in Hernando County because of Mr. Schenck's efforts," Rowden said, adding that she supports tax incentives for small businesses.
Schenck said he won a national award for his work to create small business incentives and that he had a hand in a program that will bring millions in venture capital dollars to low-income areas such as Hernando County starting next year.
Schenck said that as a commissioner, he voted against tax and fee increases that Rowden supported. He said he helped cut the state budget by $8 billion since he took office.
"She has sat up here and overtaxed our businesses for eight years, passing everything from impact fee increases to property tax increases to water fee increases," Schenck said. "She has strangled small business."
Rowden tried to link Schenck to the controversial new $48 million courthouse for the 1st District Court of Appeal. Schenck said he was among lawmakers who tried in committee to kill the bond funding for the building in 2008 but the bonds were restored by the governor and president of the Senate.
A champion of growth management, Rowden criticized Schenck for his efforts to abolish the state Department of Community Affairs. Schenck called the state agency that reviews development plans an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.
When asked whether it was fair to run in a district she doesn't live in, Rowden said that she now has an apartment in the district and officially resides there.
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The candidates for County Commission District 2 seat faced questions on three of the toughest issues the county now faces.
Democratic incumbent Rose Rocco said the county has no intention of spending some $15 million for repairs to the Hernando County Jail, as was recommended by a consultant.
"It's not a hotel, it's a jail," Rocco said. "We're looking at doing things that help keep the facility secure and maintain the safety of the prisoners."
She declined to elaborate, citing a pending lawsuit by the company that ran the jail until this year when the Sheriff's Office took over. But she acknowledged the County Commission may have made a misstep in handing over the jail to the sheriff so soon.
"Perhaps we should have extended the contract until 2012 and gone with outside bidders, but we didn't," she said.
Rocco also declined to say much about the lawsuit from Orion, the contractor on the foundering Hernando Beach Channel dredge project that has taken issue with the county's assertion that the firm breached its contract by stopping work, but she said she is confident in the county's legal team.
Wayne Dukes, the Hernando Beach Republican running to unseat Rocco, said the dredge project showed "a lack of accountability all the way through."
Asked whether he would support raiding the $18 million fund set aside for a new judicial center, Dukes said yes. "I think it's good business to use money that's there, because no time soon are we going to build a judicial complex," he said.
Dukes noted that he was part of committee in 2005 charged with making recommendations to the County Commission on spending priorities for capital improvements and said the board has shown a lack of foresight.
"We came back with two recommendations. Cut county costs 10 percent and reuse the old (Brooksville Regional) hospital, and they ignored both," Dukes said.
Asked under what circumstances she would consider raising taxes, Rocco said she would not support raising the property tax rate but might favor putting a sales tax increase for capital improvements to voters through a referendum.
Dukes said he wouldn't support that. There are other places to cut, he said, holding up a list of the county's top 135 employees whose salaries and benefits account for millions of dollars.
"That really hasn't been touched," he said. "Instead we're adding fees to kids who are playing sports."
Rocco said the county has taken action by not giving raises in two years, cutting pay by 5 percent, putting employees on furlough and streamlining and merging departments.
"We have been holding the line," she said.
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Former teacher Cynthia Moore is fighting to unseat four-term School Board member Sandra Nicholson in the nonpartisan District 5 race.
Asked to clarify her campaign promise to equalize curricula in schools, Moore said the district needs to do more to bring schools in line with the district's Title I schools, which use federal funds for extra equipment and other programs. Nicholson said the district already tried that and got a warning from the federal government.
Asked about how to cut the budget, Nicholson said the board will have to consider cutting positions funded by stimulus dollars. Moore suggested cutting positions at the county office and noninstructional positions such as math coaches.
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Five of the six candidates running for two open seats on the Spring Hill Fire Rescue Commission attended the forum. The candidates did not answer questions but offered brief statements.
Sherry Adler, Harry Chamberlain and Ken Fagan blasted the current board, calling it dysfunctional and vowing to bring cooler heads and better fiscal stewardship.
Guy "Rusty" Amore said Fire Chief Mike Rampino and the department need more support. Benjamin Edwards, who was appointed to the board this year to fill a vacant seat, acknowledged progress has come slowly but that he would work to increase training and improve the department's ability to handle its increasing call load.
Candidate George Biro did not attend the forum.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.