Democrat Rose Rocco is proud of the work she has accomplished in her first term on the Hernando County Commission — work to accomplish needed improvements in south Brooksville, decisions to help streamline government services and spending.
But her opponent in the Nov. 2 contest for the District 2 commission seat, Republican Wayne Dukes, says county government has not shrunk nearly enough or reached the efficiencies needed to match taxpayers' expectations.
For Rocco and Dukes, the match-up is a familiar one. They faced each other in 2006 in the Democratic primary. Rocco had just become a Democrat after losing two previous elections as a Republican. Dukes was running as a Democrat, just before he switched to run as a Republican out of district in 2008.
In recent weeks, Dukes has managed to close the gap between Rocco's campaign fundraising and his own. He has sunk a considerable amount of his own money into the race — $8,190 of the total $15,884 he has raised in in-kind and monetary contributions.
His contributors include the Stars of Brooksville Committee, which gave $500; the Hernando Builders Association, which gave $250; former head of the now-defunct Hernando County Taxpayers Alliance Linda Hayward, who gave $500, and longtime Hernando Republican leaders Tom and Mary Ann Hogan, who gave $200 and $100, respectively.
That compares to Rocco's $19,067 total, which includes $250 from the Hernando Builders Political Action Committee, $500 from Teamsters Local 79, $500 from the West Central Florida Federation of Labor, $500 from local developer Tommy Bronson and hundreds from a handful of medical and residential development corporations and local businesses.
To date, she has contributed $200 toward her own campaign.
Dukes, a regular at County Commission meetings, is often at the microphone voicing his concerns about everything from what he considers the inefficient way the county handles its fleet management to his displeasure with spending money to support the fixed-route mass transit system known as THE Bus.
He said he is running for the seat to "eliminate out-of-control spending" and downsize government.
"We've got to the point in this county that people don't think they're getting value for the government," Dukes said.
During the boom years, the size of government grew exponentially, making property taxes an undue burden, especially on the people living on fixed incomes, he argues.
"There is no way that there is a magic wand to fix it,'' he said.
Dukes, who has the endorsement of the Hernando County Association of Realtors, is a frequent critic of the cost of running the county's fleet of vehicles. He strongly supports keeping business within Hernando County and questions why state contracts are used to buy some basic vehicles that local dealers could sell the county for less.
County employees should also not be allowed to take their vehicles home, Dukes says.
He also questions why the county was doing its own routine maintenance on vehicles, something that resulted in $87 oil changes. Recently, county officials began to use private businesses to do routine maintenance. Vehicles should also be geared to the particular job for which they are purchased, he says.
Dukes cringes at the county doing business outside its borders and asks why three of the five engineering firms the county rotates small jobs through are from outside Hernando County.
"I'm going to start asking questions like that on day one," he said.
Spending to promote tourism is also something Dukes questions.
"Do we need to pay a full-time employee to sit in a hotel on (Interstate) 75?" he asked.
He also favors making the county's building department a friendlier place for businesses and wants to streamline permitting.
With the county still facing a multimillion-dollar revenue deficit during the next budget year, Dukes says he would not consider fee or tax increases until "we turn over every rock," and he is critical that Rocco has said that everything was on the table for consideration, including a gas tax increase, as the county struggles with its financial situation.
He also says he would favor reducing salaries of top supervisory employees rather than laying off rank-and-file workers.
Dukes, a retired federal employee, argues that his civil service career makes him better prepared for the issues faced by the commission than his opponent.
"I bring a very solid background in things that would come across the desk of commissioners," Dukes said.
He also says that while Rocco is "a nice lady," she doesn't ask enough difficult questions.
"It's imperative to be able to ask hard questions," he says.
Rocco says Dukes' criticism holds no water.
"I'm out in the community always, researching the information I need so I can ask the right questions," she said.
She says that the issues Dukes has chosen for his campaign focus are tired and that many of the complaints he has raised are about topics that the county has already addressed.
While she acknowledges that her formal education doesn't match her opponent's, Rocco says she has proven that she is a quick study on issues.
She points to her work on numerous public boards, including the citizens support organization that has formed for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, the Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority, the Transportation Disadvantaged Board and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which she heads.
"I take leadership roles on all of these things,'' she said.
Rocco points to her positive approach to getting through the many challenges facing county government.
"I build bridges. I don't build moats," she said. "I'm a bridge builder."
She says she is willing to consider raising the gas tax or sales tax, keeping all options on the table as the commission looks toward the $5 million to $7 million budget deficit expected in its 2011-12 fiscal year.
Because the ranks of county workers have been so thinned by budget cuts, services are now starting to suffer. In order to maintain basic county services, the commission is going to have to consider all possible ways to provide what taxpayers expect, she says.
Rocco has also said that she hopes the county can add a grant writer to the staff. That would mean bringing additional dollars into Hernando to provide services — dollars that won't come directly out of the pockets of residents.
She is especially proud of the work she has done with the Community Initiatives Team in south Brooksville and the Coastal Hernando Initiatives Program in the Hernando Beach area. Those communities meet with government officials to identify and address specific neighborhood needs.
"We're getting feedback from the community," she said. "We're not the government saying what's important."
Economic development, bringing in new jobs and promoting what Hernando County has to offer are all important issues for the future, Rocco says.
"We need to bring people in and show them what we have," she said, noting the county has an interstate highway, an airport and some attractive natural areas. "Our roads are not that terrible. The parks are beautiful. The affordability is here."
Economic incentives will go a long way in attracting new business, but Rocco says the county's business development office, while trying, "needs to be more aggressive." She notes that encouraging tourism is another way to get outsiders to see Hernando County's assets.
Rocco says her reason for running for re-election is simple.
"I've always been working with the community on all different levels," she said. "To me, there is just a lot to be accomplished."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.