Thursday, April 19, 2018
Politics

Hernando County Commission foes agree on just one thing

There is one thing that both Republican incumbent Jim Adkins and Democratic challenger Ramon Gutierrez agree on.

Neither candidate in the District 5 County Commission contest believes that residents of Hernando County are better off today than they were four years ago.

For Gutierrez, the reason is simple. Adkins and his commission colleagues have allowed the county to decline by failing to raise revenue to pay for needed services as property values have sunk, the challenger says.

By not increasing taxes, the current commission has been "really regressive,'' Gutierrez said. "Nobody likes to pay taxes, but everybody likes services.''

The commission also has failed to create the jobs, the educated workforce and the economic diversity needed to bring Hernando County out of its doldrums, Gutierrez said.

But Adkins says the country's current economic conditions are responsible for pulling the county down and that recovery takes time.

Adkins says that as an individual, and as part of the commission, he has helped make inroads in economic development and has provided help with individual constituent needs.

While high unemployment, foreclosures and problems with sinkholes and their effect on county revenue continue, the commission has been doing what it can to improve conditions, Adkins said.

He points to a number of ideas he has pushed to try to help turn things around. Those include facilitating discussions with companies interested in providing countywide broadband service and supporting economic development incentives for a variety of business additions and expansions.

He went to Tallahassee to try to convince state lawmakers to fix the problem of sinkhole claims because they are dragging down the value of homes, he said, but he could find little support. He hopes to go again next year.

Adkins, who has raised 20 times more in campaign contributions than his opponent, has also argued for higher exemptions for businesses that pay tangible taxes. Many of Adkins' contributors are the county's influential business leaders, including bankers, developers, lawyers and builders.

He has been endorsed by the county's builders and Realtors.

On his literature, Adkins lists multiple companies that have received state and local economic incentives during his watch, including Duratek, Alumi-Guard, Chasco Machine and Manufacturing, and Accuform Signs, which just announced a large expansion.

Gutierrez has criticized Adkins for taking credit for businesses that came to Hernando County, in some cases, years before Adkins took office.

Adkins counters that the economic incentives for expansions of existing businesses are considered new economic development achievements, and he says his main focus during another four-year term on the commission would be that very issue.

"More economic development,'' Adkins said. "More jobs. I want to see that airport down there full. I want to see east Hernando where we put water and sewer lines, another economic area, full. I want to see this place booming. But it's a hard job.''

One initiative Adkins points to is his "Comprehensive Plan for Recovery," which would have given gift cards to the buyers of foreclosed homes. The plan was never enacted.

During the past budget year, Adkins said, he also worked to find ways to alleviate the budget deficit. That includes saving $1.7 million in the sheriff's budget.

He was unsure how the county would deal with an even larger shortfall expected in the 2013-14 fiscal year. While Adkins has been firmly opposed to tax increases, he did vote to approve the property tax rate for the current year, even though it was adjusted upward to offset falling property values.

Gutierrez, who has self-financed his campaign, along with contributions from a few individuals and the Teamsters union, has talked about several ways to raise revenue and help the county's general fund.

Those include enacting a franchise fee that utilities would pay to use county right of way, finding a method other than property taxes to paying for law enforcement and the possibility of a 1-cent gas tax or temporary sales tax to create an economic development incentive fund.

"This is hard times. Everybody has to contribute,'' Gutierrez said.

He has put forth a "Moving Hernando Forward" plan that includes luring industries to the county and directing them into areas that are ready for them by using mobility fees rather than transportation impact fees.

The plan also would streamline and simplify the permitting process, reward county employee cost-savings ideas, promote adult technical and vocational classes to better prepare the workforce and improve the energy efficiency of government buildings by working with the private sector.

On several points, Gutierrez said the county is going in the wrong direction. He opposes the sale of the county's water and sewer utilities and questions efforts to sell unneeded county property.

"Now is not the time to sell. Now is the time to buy,'' said Gutierrez, who is a Realtor.

He called the commission's efforts to cut and pull back "tunnel vision. … They want to send us back to the Stone Age.''

Gutierrez has one blemish on his record. He was convicted of driving under the influence in 1994.

Adkins has also expressed concern about selling the county's water and sewer system. That issue will be discussed at Tuesday's commission meeting.

Although he has been critical of the county's fixed-route transit system known as THE Bus, Adkins voted in August to extend the contract with the current operator for another two years.

Gutierrez believes THE Bus is necessary and a service that should be provided without expecting that it will pay for itself.

"If you have two legs and you can get in your car and drive and you're against THE Bus," he said, "that's a very selfish statement to make.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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