In early 2008, Hernando County commissioners retained a new, highly regarded county administrator who is seeking to reshape local government via increased accountability and consolidation of services. It is an ongoing process, but the six-month performance of Administrator David Hamilton has been strong and well-received.
Now, the three commissioners who voted to hire Hamilton face the electorate amid a campaign of sometimes angry rhetoric over government spending. That issue is nearly irrelevant given the spending constraints from voter approval of the new property tax exemptions in Amendment 1.
Voter unrest is to be expected given Hernando County's 9 percent unemployment rate, the highest in the Tampa Bay area. But the jobless rate is attributed to the stalled home-construction industry and is reflective of the national economy, tight credit and dubious lending practices of the past. Blaming impact fees — still significantly lower than in the county to the south — and local property tax rates for the slowdown is politically convenient, but simply inaccurate.
Hernando County's government is on the right track and the Times strongly recommends voters re-elect the three incumbent commissioners who helped put it there: Jeff Stabins, Diane Rowden and Chris Kingsley.
Jeff Stabins, a first-term Republican incumbent, offers innovative ideas at a time most of the political landscape is saturated with tired rhetoric. Instead of buying into the business community's irresponsible push to lower impact fees, Stabins put forth an alternative to capitalize on available state housing money to repair older homes while pushing employment opportunities for local contractors. That so few jumped at the option was indicative of the down economy, rather than the logic behind Stabins' initiative.
Stabins, 48, a teacher and former state legislator, brings an understanding of the appropriate role of government in providing a social services net and other essential duties while still reducing the property tax rate as the county has for the past three years.
Too, his career as an educator provides an imperative perspective. Vocational education, he noted, is needed to increase economic development opportunities. Stabins also is prudent enough to recognize the county cannot grow haphazardly to suit the financial demands of developers. He was the catalyst in developing and approving the ordinance requiring a supermajority vote to amend the county's comprehensive land use plan.
His opponent is Democrat Ramon J. Gutierrez, 56, a mortgage broker and former restaurant owner. He is running a low-key campaign championing improved tourism and business opportunities, but he doesn't demonstrate a depth of knowledge of the complex issues facing the county.
Two-term incumbent Democrat Diane Rowden, 59, is a hard-working, independent-thinking problem solver who assumes the role as the voice of the little guy. That was illustrated recently when Hamilton ordered immediate drainage improvements after Rowden brought him for a tour of standing water in a residential neighborhood. It is the kind of effective governing and public service that doesn't get accomplished by exclusively sitting in meetings.
Her opposition to developments that would strain the county's infrastructure has earned her the wrath of the building community, but Rowden says the label pinned on her as ''no growth'' is inaccurate. Controlled growth is essential, she said, noting there are 58,000 undeveloped but platted lots in Hernando and "we've only got one chance to get it right.''
She is opposed by former Hernando School Board member John Druzbick, 57, who owns a business selling custom blinds. Druzbick was a solid School Board member, but offers no compelling reason for replacing Rowden. Nearly all of his criticisms about local spending are muted by the budget realities of governing in the post Amendment 1 era. Tunnel vision won't improve the quality of life in Hernando County.
Democrat Chris Kingsley, 56, a retired firefighter and former teacher, is seeking his second consecutive term and third overall on the commission. An original proponent of public transportation, he also advocated curbside recycling and pushed for better aesthetics of big-box commercial stores and controlling commercial lighting spilling into residential neighborhoods — initiatives supported by Rowden as well.
Like Stabins, Kingsley is cognizant of the role of education in trying to diversify Hernando's construction-based economy. That he just completed his master's degree in business administration shows a commissioner committed to self-improvement and one who wants likewise for the county.
His Republican opponent, James E. Adkins, 59, was the surprise winner of a three-person GOP primary in August. The former Brooksville fire chief is critical of just about everything and believes all government woes can be solved by less taxation. It's a narrow focus that fails to recognize the demands of providing adequate public services to the community.