BROOKSVILLE — For Hernando County Commissioner John Druzbick to win a second term, he will have to overcome several challengers, all of whom are trying to convince voters that they would make a better commissioner.
First up is Druzbick's feisty opponent in the Aug. 14 Republican primary, Jason Patrick Sager.
With his "More Liberty, Less Government" slogan, Sager has been railing about Druzbick's willingness to raise the property tax rate, his failure to make more cuts in government spending and the county's — and thus Druzbick's — inability to lure new business and industry to Hernando County.
Druzbick's response: The county has made budget cuts and become more efficient during his four years on the commission, and he has played a key role in that. He says he supports a tax-rate increase for the 2012-13 budget year because there is no other way to cut the millions that would have to be sliced to make up for the revenue shortfall caused by falling property values.
Druzbick also defends the county's and his economic development efforts, and he says the county is beginning to see some renewed interest from companies looking to expand or relocate.
By a margin of about a 3-1, Druzbick's campaign is the better financed. As of earlier this month, he had collected nearly $22,000 in cash contributions, many of them from some of the most notable names in the Hernando County business community. Sager had raised just over $7,000, including a number of contributions from family members.
Whoever wins the primary will face three opponents in the November general election: Democrat Diane Rowden, whom Druzbick ousted from the commission four years ago; no-party candidate Greg Sheldon, and write-in Tanya Marsh.
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Sager calls himself "a big picture guy.'' He says he decided to run for the commission because, "I feel I can do a better job for the people of Hernando County than my opponent.''
The county's top priority, he said, should be to get people back to work.
"We've got to make the county a more attractive place to do business,'' he said.
Sager favors generating more data on why it is that businesses don't come to Hernando or expand in the county. His belief is that the county requires businesses to jump through too many hoops and pay too much in order to get set up or expand.
A one-stop office for all government services should be what the business development office becomes in the future, he said. The county could assemble employees from different departments at the center, and they would be able to walk a business owner through the entire process. The state should be represented too, he added.
Also, the county should be more aggressive in seeking out businesses that are considering relocation and widen the scope of industries that it attempts to attract, Sager argued. While seeking out manufacturing firms is fine, he would favor casting a wider net because "we will never compete with China,'' he said. "Technology jobs are always going to pay better than manufacturing.''
Sager said he would like to see a budget workshop process that better serves the public and gives residents a more detailed look at what is happening with the budget, so they can learn exactly how much government services cost.
He is adamantly opposed to increasing the property tax rate. When asked where else the county might cut the budget to match declining revenues, he said he would be willing to sit with department directors and examine their budgets line by line. Then the departments and the commission would have to set priorities for what could and could not be funded.
Past budgets indicate that the county vastly overbudgets what it needs to spend, he said, which means it rolls over large amounts of money into the next budget year. Simply rolling over the reserve funds doesn't account for the tens of millions of dollars difference between what the county budgets each year and what it has spent when the year is done, he said.
Sager said he doesn't believe the budget numbers he gets from the county.
"It seems to me that they can make these numbers seem like what we want them to be,'' he said.
Also in Sager's platform is strong support for charter government.
"If we can control our own destiny, we would be better,'' he said.
A charter would give residents more say in county government's structure and would allow changes in salaries — some of which need to be lower, according to Sager — as well as changes in who reports to whom, which might give the commission more power over various aspects of the budget.
He says he is also strongly opposed to continuing THE Bus, the county's public transit system, because it is poorly utilized and the county can't afford it.
Sager said his ultra-conservative, constitutional perspective has some critics claiming he wants to dismantle government. That's not so, he said.
"We need government. Anarchy doesn't work,"' he said. "I believe in a government that is limited — limited by the law.''
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Druzbick takes issue with some of Sager's assertions about the budget and economic development.
While Sager has used figures showing that county expenditures have skyrocketed in recent years, Druzbick points to declining budgets, declining revenues and declining tax bills for most property owners during his tenure on the board.
Druzbick defends his push to stabilize county government funding by increasing the tax rate for 2012-13 to the so-called rollback rate. That is the rate the county would charge to raise the same amount of revenue for the coming budget year that was collected this year, applied to lower property values.
Faced with cutting millions from the board's diminished budget — which could have shuttered parks and libraries, and ended recreation programs and government broadcasting — Druzbick opted for the higher tax rate, and two of his fellow commissioners have agreed.
The final tax rate and budget will be formalized after public hearings in September.
Druzbick said he has been working to fulfill promises he made when he was elected to the commission in 2008. Commissioners have been shrinking county government, combining departments and making operations more efficient, he said.
Druzbick has headed up a committee of business people working on consolidation of government services, such as information technology and Geographic Information Services.
"The economy has forced us to makes these changes,'' Druzbick said. "If we can make it more efficient and less costly, then why not?''
He said there has been good progress made with the building department to help applicants through the maze of permits and inspections they need to expand or open new businesses. More work is needed, he acknowledged, but the department is headed in the right direction.
He said he also is encouraged that the county has a plan and is moving forward with economic development, and that some hopeful signs have been appearing, including some new tenants and expansions near the airport.
Druzbick said it is important that the county find a way to support economic development because it is a competitive market.
"There's $7 million sitting out there in the (county's) judicial fund, and I will try my darnedest to make sure that money isn't touched to balance the budget,'' Druzbick said, noting those funds may someday be needed to close a deal with a business seeking a new home.
"We have to support economic development,'' he said, "because we can't live off retail.''
Druzbick said Sager's idea to combine all of the permitting and inspection processes under the business development umbrella shows a lack of understanding of how some government services work. The county controls some aspects of processing applications for a new business or an expansion, he said, but state building codes and rules cannot be loosened.
Druzbick said he also believes Sager doesn't understand government when he talks about not being able to afford THE Bus because losing that service would cost the county much more in meeting federal disabled access rules.
It also would cost the county transportation grant money, he said.
Druzbick was one of the commissioners who chose to fire County Administrator David Hamilton last year. He said he has no regrets, and likes what he has seen from Hamilton's replacement.
Administrator Len Sossamon has been busy getting to speed on county issues, he said.
Druzbick's initial impression?
"So far, so good,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.