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Hernando commission race focuses on tax revenue, job creation

Incumbent District 1 County Commissioner Jeff Stabins' campaign literature states boldly that he "delivers for Hernando County."

If that statement ended in a question mark instead, it would summarize how voters will likely decide whether the Republican should be returned for a second term or whether a local businessman, Democrat Ramon Gutierrez, should replace him.

In what has been thus far a cordial race, Gutierrez argues that Stabins has not earned a chance at another term. Current commissioners, including Stabins, have allowed overall county property tax revenues to grow at a rate that has far outstripped actual county growth as property values soared and the county's property owners have seen the boom turn into a bust.

"Now we're getting into some very lean times," he said.

The county needs to focus on growing more jobs, both blue collar and white collar, and pushing more vocational education programs, giving Hernando County's young people needed job skills, Gutierrez said.

Stabins also wants to see more jobs created and more opportunities for Hernando residents to find well-paying work. But he argues that his record of service shows that he has worked for the county's needs and that his experience both in education and government make him uniquely qualified.

As for the criticism about not catching early enough the increasing property tax revenue, Stabins notes that "nobody is perfect," but points out that those extra revenues allowed the county to complete some road projects and other needed expenses, as well as set some money aside for larger tasks ahead.

He argues that the commission has been responsive to residents's requests for relief, reducing the tax rate by 25 percent in the past four years. And he says he wants to stay on to work with County Administrator David Hamilton on efforts to make county government more efficient, eliminate duplication of services and downsize the government structure.

"David Hamilton has done a tremendous job," Stabins said. "It takes time to right the direction of a large shop, and that's what the county is."

Gutierrez said he would like to see the county's spending plan in a form that makes it more understandable to residents, providing more transparency of decisions made by the commission.

His platform also focuses on the idea of making Hernando County a destination in the future for a bike race similar to the Tour de France. The event would bring attention to the community and its scenic landscape and rolling hills. It would bring business into the area as well, he says.

He has also suggested that a foot race similar to the Boston Marathon would be another way to raise the community's profile.

"That's what this community needs — to be placed on the map," Gutierrez said.

He would favor having the county reduce the size of the vehicles used in its fleet and explore converting some vehicles to propane power, and would prefer seeing a night court instituted or portable buildings to accommodate judicial needs rather than constructing a new judicial center.

A Cuba native, Gutierrez said he is running for the commission seat to serve and because he wants to give back.

Stabins said he hopes voters see by his record that he is committed to helping Hernando County residents.

He said he advocated for responsible growth management by pushing for the ordinance that requires a supermajority vote to change the comprehensive plan. He said he worked to repeal unnecessary rules and worked to find ways to rein in "overzealous" code enforcement. And, he noted, he created and gained approval for a stimulus plan to put some contractors to work while fixing up homes of the poorest in the community.

Gutierrez has been campaigning using a tiny war chest of less than $2,000 funded from his own pocket, the Democratic Party and a few retiree supporters.

By comparison, Stabins' campaign fund topped $21,000 by the end of September, with contributors ranging from $25 checks from individuals to $500 contributions from companies and community leaders, some of whom have come before the commission during Stabins' time sitting on the board.

"Almost everyone has to be before the board at one time or another. You'd almost have to live in a cave to avoid it,'' Stabins said.

He said he follows the election law, doesn't take more than what is allowed and doesn't promise anything in return. He said his contributors must respect that.

Gutierrez has earned the endorsement of the Hernando County Taxpayers Alliance, although he acknowledges that he has known the alliance leader Linda Hayward only a few months and has met with her but not her group.

Stabins has the endorsement of the Hernando Builders Association, the Board of Realtors, both local firefighters unions and the Teamsters.

Both of the candidates have faced charges of driving while under the influence. Gutierrez was convicted of the charge in 1994. Stabins was charged with DUI in 1996 and was convicted of reckless driving.

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

>>about the candidates

Jeff Stabins

Born in Watertown, N.Y., Stabins, 48, came to Hernando County 21 years ago. He has been a commissioner for one term and served as a state representative from 1992 through 1998. A home-instruction teacher for the Hernando County School Board, he has been active in the First Hernando Republican Club and is a member of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce. He graduated from Watertown High School; he earned his bachelor's degree from Excelsior College and his master's from St. Lawrence University.

Ramon Gutierrez

Born in Havana, Cuba, Gutierrez, 56, came to Florida from New Jersey 25 years ago. He has worked as a mortgage broker since 1999 and a real estate associate since 2006. Before that, he operated a restaurant in Brooksville called Ramon's Cafe. He has been a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens. He graduated from Memorial High School in West New York, N.J.

Hernando commission race focuses on tax revenue, job creation 10/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 2:15pm]
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