Hernando County Commissioner Jim Adkins will be the first to admit that the county is not really in better shape than it was when he was first elected four years ago.
But it's not for lack of trying to find solutions for the consequences of the economic downturn, Adkins said.
James "Jimmy" Lodato said he thinks county commissioners need to try harder. They need to be positive. And they need to be aggressive in their efforts to bring in new business, stabilize the county budget and move Hernando forward.
Lodato says he jumped into the District 5 commission race at the last minute when no one else stepped up.
Adkins and Lodato will face off in the Aug. 14 Republican primary. The winner will face Democratic challenger Ramon Gutierrez in the November general election.
Lodato has about $11,000 in cash to wage his campaign against Adkins, most of it contributions he has made to himself. Adkins has raised about $9,800 in cash, with many of his contributions coming from influential business and political leaders in the county.
Adkins says he decided to run for a second term because he was encouraged to do so by community members. After checking with his wife, he agreed to seek re-election, but said a second term would be his last.
He said he is proud of the commission's accomplishments over the past four years, citing his efforts to provide more detail about county spending on the county's website and his work to help the county find a company to provide countywide broadband service, which officials say is critical to drawing new businesses to the community.
Several companies have expressed interest in bidding on the job, Adkins said.
His list of self-described accomplishments also includes helping Spring Hill Cemetery get lighting to cut down on vandalism and assisting residents on private roads who cannot easily get emergency services.
Adkins has been working for some time on a solution that would be similar to the special benefits units used to pave lime rock roads, with the residents along the roads paying a portion and the county paying a portion of the improvement costs.
Working with the Florida Department of Transportation, Adkins said he also is proud of getting caution lights approved at a dangerous intersection and agreements to smooth out some rough railroad crossings.
Adkins has been opposed to raising the property tax rate to avoid more cuts in the county's general fund spending. He has said that he would like to see more cuts from the budgets of the county's five constitutional officers. He also has said that he fears what a tax rate increase would do to county businesses that already are struggling because of the economy.
He predicts that next year will continue to be a financial challenge for the county, with property values continuing to fall, sinkholes continuing to contribute to the property value reductions and uncertainty about several other issues, including how much the county will owe the state on Medicaid bills.
Knowing how competitive the market is, Adkins said he would accept cashing out reserve funds to help attract companies to Hernando County "if that's the only way to get them here.''
Adkins has opposed several big-ticket items during his tenure. He has been a staunch opponent of the county's stormwater improvement project at Peck Sink south of Brooksville, a project nearly completed that was then damaged by Tropical Storm Debby and other recent rains.
He told fellow commissioners after the storm that he had just four words for them on the topic: "I told you so.''
The recently completed control tower at the Hernando County Airport was another project Adkins did not favor. He said he doubted the numbers that commissioners were given about plane usage at the airport and hoped the county wouldn't end up liable for costs related to the project.
He says he supports more use of the honor system for people to pay user fees at county parks.
Adkins says he hopes the next four years will bring more economic development, jobs and businesses to the airport industrial park.
"I want to see Hernando County booming,'' he said.
Adkins said he believes he can help make that happen if voters return him to the commission.
"I think I have strong conservative values," he said. "I try to work for the people.''
While Lodato hasn't been involved in public politics before, he gained experience working with governmental entities when he was president of the Tierra Verde Community Association in Pinellas County more than a dozen years ago.
In that capacity, he says, he established a fire district and a lighting district, negotiated for protection from the Sheriff's Office and enacted a multiyear beautification master plan.
Not long after that, he and his wife, Tammy, moved to Hernando County and started their Soaring Spirit Ranch. She was then diagnosed with cancer, and Lodato says the support and compassion of the Hernando County community deeply touched them both and helped in her recovery.
That community spirit is part of what encouraged him to step into the commission race, he says.
The current board, Lodato said, has not shown enough leadership to make difficult decisions.
"They manage by crisis,'' he said.
Lodato said he backs the idea of increasing the property tax rate to stabilize revenues "because there's no other way.''
If the county would go into a default, or if bond ratings continue to fall, it could devastate the county, he said. He said he also is concerned about measures on the ballot in November that could further erode the county's financial position, and yet some people still are clamoring for no increase in the tax rate.
"I'm just frustrated,'' he said. "Everybody wants their services, but they don't want to pay for it.''
Lodato said the community needs to pull together to bridge what he sees as a division between Brooksville and Spring Hill. He favors the county sponsoring more town hall meetings, where residents could come together and talk about important issues.
As for economic development, he said that from his years of success in sales and marketing, "I have the expertise to go out and expand business.'' Aggressively going after businesses that are thinking about relocating was part of what he did during his working years, he said, and that is what's needed now in Hernando County.
He says he would favor cutting through any obstacles that companies encounter when they are considering Hernando as a place to move or expand.
"The permitting process needs to be seamless and less restrictive,'' he said.
On the issue of park user fees, Lodato says residents already are paying for parks through their property taxes, but, if a special activity were going on at a park, he could support a nominal fee for participation. He also says he would like to see an adopt-a-park program, which would help maintain the county's park facilities.
A strong supporter of the county's public transit system, Lodato says he is afraid that some community leaders and residents don't understand how important bus service is to the county.
"If we want to grow the county, this is an essential part of our infrastructure,'' he said. "I envision mass transportation connecting Hernando, Pasco and Hillsborough counties in the future.''
Lodato says he realizes he isn't known by as many people as Adkins, but that he is trying to get his message out to as many voters as he can before the Aug. 14 primary.
"I think I offer an alternative,'' he said. "I'm giving you a choice. You can go with the status quo or a new vision for the future.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.