Hernando County government is a train wreck. After four years of cutting, the county is still looking at a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall in the coming year just weeks after the legal staff voiced concerns about potential insolvency and lenders lowered a county bond rating, making future borrowing more expensive.
Meanwhile, services are so strained that: the county was embarrassed by highly publicized gaffes in Animal Services; commissioners authorized a dubious tax swap to spray for mosquitoes; the private sector had to step in to keep a community park open; and now public safety could be diminished because of proposed law enforcement cuts.
Against that backdrop, voters will weigh in on three commission races to begin charting the county's future.
Change is needed.
A status quo of the county leadership would be highly undesirable.
Commissioners are elected countywide, but must meet district residency requirements. All three races are primaries only, with additional candidates qualifying for the November ballot.
Here are the Times' recommendations in the Aug. 14 primary elections:
Nicholas Nicholson, District 1, Republican
Engineer Nicholas Nicholson is the best Republican candidate to succeed two-term Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who is not seeking re-election.
A longtime community and civic volunteer, Nicholson, 55, offers the most diverse ideas. Like others, he wants quicker turnaround on building permits and less regulation for businesses. But, unlike his opponents, he recognizes the value of the county's mass transit system and he believes the county should use economic incentives to improve land-use planning and to encourage in-fill development while protecting green space.
Michael Burmann, 52, who owns a home-inspection business, ran unsuccessfully for this seat four years ago and is running again a similar less-government platform.
Richard Matassa, 43, an engineer and owner of A Civil Design Group, is a slash-and-burn conservative who believes the county can cut its way to prosperity by reducing spending and government regulation. It hasn't worked so far, and there is little reason for voters to believe it will be successful in the future.
A fourth candidate, Regina Werder-McGuire, doesn't live in Hernando County, has done no campaigning and did not respond to interview requests.
Republicans seeking to nominate their strongest candidate should choose Nick Nicholson for District 1 county commissioner.
John Druzbick, District 3, Republican
Incumbent John Druzbick has cast many disagreeable votes over his four-year term. He killed park fees after sports leagues' representatives already had agreed to pay them. He approved a massive development in the county's northern tier that will promote future sprawl. He eliminated impact fees in what turned out to be a failed economic stimulus. Likewise, he is too focused on steering county government purchases to local businesses instead of ensuring taxpayers get the most value for the buck.
But, Druzbick, 61, is a strong supporter of THE Bus mass transit system and provided genuine leadership to the board majority when he agreed, in an election year, to raise the property tax rate. The rollback rate generates consistent revenue for the county's general fund in the coming year.
He is opposed by Jason Patrick Sager, 38, who made an unsuccessful run for Congress two years ago and now is trying to capitalize on the tea party philosophy to win a commission seat.
Sager's "more liberty, less government'' mantra doesn't translate well to local government except to: push the idea of killing The Bus; question other spending without offering ideas on what to cut; and say the county needs to research why businesses aren't locating here.
Despite the incumbent's shortcomings, Sager is not a suitable replacement. Republicans should pick John Druzbick for District 3 commissioner.
James "Jimmy'' Lodato, District 5, Republican
Commissioner Jim Adkins, 63, joined the commission simultaneously with Druzbick, but his four-year performance is incredibly weak. Adkins touts his constituent service, but he has few policy ideas and too frequently opts for the political cowardice of voting "no'' on nearly all spending decisions. Leadership is not calling for a property tax cut and then letting your fellow commissioners figure out how to pay for it.
Adkins wants to focus on economic development and job creation, but his own voting record is contradictory. Adkins opposed accepting federal money to build a control tower at the county airport, considered a key component to future expansion and economic growth there and at the adjoining industrial park.
His opponent demonstrates a broader understanding of business recruitment. James "Jimmy'' Lodato, 70, moved here 12 years ago to become a gentleman rancher and said he was motivated to give back to Hernando County residents because of the outpouring of community support for him and his wife when she was diagnosed with cancer six years ago.
Lodato was a successful entrepreneur and businessman who retired at age 39 and then became active in the Tierra Verde community in southern Pinellas County. His private-sector experience would be an asset for economic development, and Lodato points to industries the county should pursue to complement existing corporations here.
He correctly notes the commission is too focused on crisis management and seat-of-the-pants governing while long-term planning is pushed aside. The commission is attempting to do too much on declining revenues and must be willing to ask the public to pay a little more for government services and the quality-of-life attributes they provide, he says. Failing to do so dooms the county's long-term economic outlook because businesses won't be eager to open in a downtrodden area missing adequate parks, libraries and other amenities.
Hernando Republicans should put that reasoned approach to governing, business experience and high energy to use and select James "Jimmy'' Lodato in the District 5 commission primary.