Editor's note: This story is one in a series leading up to the Aug. 14 primary election.
A crowd of seven candidates is vying for the chance to fill the District 1 Hernando County Commission that Jeff Stabins has decided to vacate.
Four of the contenders are Republicans who will appear on the Aug. 14 primary election ballot.
The GOP field includes two local engineers, Richard Matassa and Nick Nicholson; home inspector Michael Burmann; and Regina Werder-McGuire, who has not participated in public campaign events or responded to media inquiries about her candidacy.
The three active candidates have focused their campaigns on their versions of fiscal conservatism and economic development. The primary winner will square off with Democrat Arlene Glantz, independent Joseph Swilley and write-in candidate Jose Luis Monegro in the November general election.
The engineer candidates are neck and neck with their fundraising efforts. Nicholson has collected $14,927 in cash, and Matassa $13,191. Each has contributed toward his own campaign, and each has a variety of business and individual contributors.
Nicholson's contributors include some of the county's influential business leaders, while Matassa has received a number of donations from contractors and property management companies.
Burmann has raised $5,948, mostly from individuals. Werder-McGuire's forms indicate she has received no donations for her campaign.
While Burmann was unsuccessful in his run for the District 1 commission seat in 2008, he said in his announcement this year that he never has lost his desire to help Hernando County.
Since his last run, he was appointed by the governor to the Hernando County Housing Authority, and he has been active in local Republican politics, including serving as president of the First Hernando Republican Club.
Burmann says he is concerned that special interests in Hernando County get more attention than the regular citizens. Those special interests support candidates, then expect the elected commissioner to do their bidding, such as approving land-use changes, he says.
He questions how commissioners can avoid conflicts of interest when they take contributions from the companies that come before them seeking county business.
Burmann claims that his serious opponents in the primary race are special-interest candidates, with Nicholson being friends with Stabins and some of the groups and individuals he has supported in the past, including influential Realtor Gary Schraut.
Burmann says Matassa has some of the same viewpoints he does, but is tied to builders.
If he had been on the commission at the time the decision was made to reduce impact fees to zero, Burmann said, he would have voted for the reduction, but only to be competitive with surrounding communities. He said he would like to see the fees, which are levied on new construction to help pay for infrastructure, return when the economy bounces back, but would like to see more flexibility in how they can be used.
With the looming revenue shortfall for the county's 2012-13 budget, Burmann said commissioners seemed to be backed into a corner and might indeed need to raise the property tax rate. But he said he believes there are still "fluff items'' in the budget that could be cut, though he also says he would be reluctant to approve deep cuts to the sheriff's and fire-rescue budgets.
Burmann says he would like to see the county provide more leadership to draw residents into volunteering. Not only would that help with some of the county's personnel costs, but it might also pull people together to get around the negative atmosphere that has permeated county government.
Not a fan of creating a special taxing unit to fund mosquito control, Burmann says he would vote against that referendum in November. Those kinds of functions should be paid for out of general fund revenues, he says.
While he supports economic development, Burmann said he doesn't understand why the county has been unsuccessful in bringing in big employers.
The county, he said, needs to think hard about the types of businesses it attempts to attract. While heavy water users would not work in Hernando, the county could consider building a desalination plant. That would solve the county's need for water and create jobs.
And it might be the only way that the county can manage to build all of the subdivisions it has approved in recent years, he said.
Burmann is in favor of shutting down the fixed-route transit service known as THE Bus and does not favor user fees to pay for parks.
Burmann filed for bankruptcy in 2001. He has said that the bankruptcy was due to credit card debt and, afterward, he regretted the filing.
Matassa says he decided to try his hand at politics when he didn't see anyone in the District 1 race that he could support — anyone who shared the same conservative values he has.
To turn Hernando County around, he says, the community needs to face the fact that its standing as a retirement community has taken a back seat to other communities such as the Villages and retirement destinations in other states. That has to change, he says.
"Government has got to get out of the way and allow entrepreneurs and the free market to determine and dictate how that's going to happen,'' Matassa said.
Positive thinking and growth are needed because the county will not be able to attract new businesses as long as it is seen as a declining market, he said.
The county can help with that process by cutting costs and not raising taxes, he said. And how to do that rests with the county staff, he said, not the county commissioners.
"I think the current commission can … demand more from their department heads,'' he said
Matassa also believes the county employees' union needs to accept lower wages and lower benefits because that is what the private sector has had to do.
Matassa is opposed to both of the taxing units that voters will decide on in the November election. The mosquito control tax, he said, is "just another way to get into your pocket.'' He also opposes continuing to assess property owners to pay for the acquisition and maintenance of sensitive lands.
"We used that money so successfully at Peck Sink,'' he said with sarcasm, referring to damage at the site during the recent tropical storm and other heavy rains.
Matassa says he believes that local government provides essential services, such as police and fire service, but overall has "too many rules that make it too hard for an entrepreneur to succeed in Hernando County."
Hernando hasn't seen the success of places like the Villages because large-scale developers see the rules here and decide to go elsewhere, he said.
The free market — not government rules — should determine whether a subdivision has sidewalks or where trees are placed, he said. He also believes that impact fees should never return and that if a development is going to have an impact on the county's infrastructure, agreements the county negotiates with developers could dictate how the developer will pay for the necessary improvements.
The county should not make a developer pay up front for those impacts, he said.
Matassa says he is different from his opponents because "none of them talk about the future.''
They don't talk about the real problems or real solutions, he said.
The reason the county's unemployment rate is so high, he said, is because the community is in decline. And no one wants to move into or move a business into a declining community, he said.
County government needs to work harder to help businesses succeed, he said.
Matassa said he believes the county is not urban enough to support THE Bus, calling it "a luxury, not a necessity.'' He also does not believe it is government's place to pay companies to bring jobs into the community.
"That's not a long-term solution,'' he said. "Provide a strong community, they'll want to be in it.''
Nicholson says that for years he has tried to make Hernando County a better place to live by volunteering on boards like the Planning and Zoning Commission, on which he served for seven years.
When his friend Stabins told him he was not going to seek another term and encouraged him to run, Nicholson says he saw it as an opportunity to have more of an impact.
He admitted frustration with trying to make a difference from the outside.
"I feel I can be more effective on the inside,'' he said.
Nicholson says he first got involved in the community because he didn't want to see special interests running everything. And so "once I get elected, I'm going to represent everybody," he said.
With his history as an engineer, his background as a disabled veteran, his work with county groups, including the chamber of commerce and the Rotary Club, and his educational background, Nicholson says he believes he is the most qualified candidate for the District 1 commission seat.
A primary job of each commissioner is to supervise the county administrator, and Nicholson says he would meet with the administrator once a week. He says he would also make sure that each department head was qualified to do his or her job.
"I want to make sure they are all doing their jobs eight hours a day and all the employees are doing their jobs and they're all being treated the same,'' he said.
Nicholson also says he would support changes in development rules to encourage more in-fill projects, where infrastructure already exists, and allow taller developments, which would create more green space.
Unsure that the county has done enough to cut spending, Nicholson says he believes there needs to be a line-item search of budgets and that the county could still gain some efficiencies by combining more positions.
But Nicholson also said that the board-controlled departments should not be the only offices having to cut their budgets. The county's constitutional officers should help, he said.
"Why can't everybody share the load?" he said. "It's not being shared right now.''
He specifically said that the sheriff, who has the largest chunk of the county's general fund budget, needs to try harder to cut his spending.
While Nicholson said he wouldn't rule out ever approving an increase in the property tax rate, "I really don't think we're at that point.''
He said the county also needs to find a way to meet the needs of residents who need public transportation, although he wishes there were a more efficient method than the county's current fixed-route bus system. He said that whatever the system is, it should serve a wider range of riders, including those who need a way to get to work.
Nicholson has faced several complaints filed against his engineering license since 2000. He was twice reprimanded and paid costs. He was also fined in one instance for negligence and was required to take an ethics course.
But Nicholson said that since those cases, he has been appointed by the governor as the structural engineer on the Florida Building Commission.
"I think it's pretty obvious that the governor is not going to make me the state's structural engineer on that board if those (complaints) were of any significance,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.