SPRING HILL — Questions about taxes, mass transit and other issues highlighted the divergent political philosophies of Hernando County Commission hopefuls who attended a political forum Thursday evening.
Seven challengers vying for three commission seats showed up at the Palace Grand for the event, organized by the African-American Club of Hernando, the Hernando County Branch NAACP and the Kiwanis Club of the Nature Coast. Attracting a crowd of about 150, the forum also featured candidates for School Board and county sheriff and supervisor of elections.
The field of commission candidates offered strikingly different stances on issues that have dominated local headlines.
In the race for the commission's open District 1 seat, Democrat Arlene Glantz faces Republican Nicholas Nicholson, Independent Joseph Swilley and write-in challenger Jose Monegro.
The District 3 ballot includes Democrat Diane Rowden, Republican Jason Sager, no-party candidate Greg Sheldon and write-in candidate Tanya Marsh.
Incumbent Republican Commissioner James Adkins is battling Democrat Ramon Gutierrez to keep the District 5 seat.
All but Adkins and the write-in candidates attended.
Moderator Lori Bainum, director of corporate training for Pasco-Hernando Community College, asked questions solicited from the community by the three groups.
Asked if raising the property tax rate should be an option to close a budget shortfall, Gutierrez said he would consider it to keep the reserve fund healthy. Sheldon called a millage increase a "last resort."
Glantz offered some ideas to raise revenue, but didn't specifically answer the question about millage rates before her minute ran out.
Nicholson, Sager and Swilley said no.
"We've reduced the (county) workforce by half; we can still reduce it more," Nicholson said.
Sager used the question as a chance to take a swipe at Rowden, noting that the increase in the county's budget outpaced population growth during the eight years she served on the board previously.
The commission during that time was wise to bolster the reserve fund, even as the demand for services exploded, Rowden countered. She criticized the current commission for blowing through reserves and waiting too long to raise the millage rate, at least to the rollback rate, which would bring in the same amount of money as the previous year, even with declining property values.
"If this county County Commission had put in place the rollbacks each year … we wouldn't be in this problem, and your taxes wouldn't have gone up," she said. "They would have stayed the same."
Gutierrez, Nicholson and Sheldon said they would support hiring a veterinarian to help oversee the county's Animal Services operation. Glantz said she couldn't answer without knowing what the county is spending for services compared to what an on-staff veterinarian would cost. Rowden ran out of time before she answered, but said afterward that a staff vet is probably a good idea.
Automatically answering yes would be "pandering," Sager said. It would be better, he said, to partner with the private sector to provide veterinary services.
"The thing we need to understand is Animal Services is not a shelter, and we have to face that grim reality," he said.
Like Sager, Swilley said he would be reluctant to hire another staffer with a substantial salary.
Gutierrez, Glantz and Rowden said they support reinstating impact fees, which are levied on new construction to help pay for infrastructure. The current commission voted last fall to suspend the fees.
"The people who benefit from the infrastructure should be paying for it," Glantz said.
Nicholson said he supports the moratorium "for the foreseeable future, as long as the economy's in the tank," adding that he also favors a half-cent sales tax to use only for transportation projects. Sheldon said he might vote to bring back the fees when the economy improves.
Swilley said the fees impede growth and should remain at zero. Sager said he opposes "on principle" what he calls "government growth fees."
Five of the seven candidates said they would vote to keep THE Bus, the county's federally subsidized mass transit system.
"There is a true need," Sheldon said.
Citing low ridership, Swilley and Sager said they could not support THE Bus, which "serves less than 0.3 percent of the population," Sager said. He insisted that dumping federal dollars into the system is helping to "bankrupt" his 6 year-old son's generation.
"One of the reasons I want to shut this program down is to show him that we actually care," Sager said.
"Let me have one of the 0.3 percent of the bus riders stand up," Rowden said when it was her turn to answer.
She then pointed to David Philipsen, a 24-year-old Spring Hill man with cerebral palsy who has been an outspoken advocate for the system.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.