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Commission seat attracts GOP trio // COUNTY COMMISSION

For three years, Guy "Rusty" Amore has seen Hernando County government from behind piles of chicken salad and bagels.

He has heard the snippets of conversations as he carves up turkey and rings up chewing gum and M&Ms for the employees who spend their lunch hours clustered around the plastic tables in the county government center's third-floor snack bar.

From the speakers, he has listened to the piped-in debates, where county commissioners argue over such issues whether to grant zoning requests or raise the property tax rate.

"I could do a better job than this," thought Amore. But he kept silent until July, when he stunned many in the government center by filing his candidacy papers hours before the deadline.

Meanwhile, Bobbi Mills was fresh from an unsuccessful run for the Hernando County School Board. Politics had gotten into her blood.

"I lost, but I still kept going" to School Board meetings, she said.

She was active in the community and wanted to get more involved. When she heard rumors that her county commissioner, June Ester, was planning a run for Hernando property appraiser, Mills saw it as her chance to try again.

Discreetly, she asked Ester if the gossip she had heard was true. Though Ester refused to confirm the story outright, she did not discourage Mills from filing to her District 3 commission seat.

Also entering the fray was Clem Merola, a Pasco County code enforcement officer who lives in Hernando. Merola, head of the Elks Lodge on State Road 50, had considered challenging incumbent Tony Mosca Jr. for his commission seat in District 4 in 1994, but had second thoughts and bowed out before the primary.

"I've been asked by many, many people to run for office," Merola said. "I've got leadership experience."

Now that Ester, an eight-year incumbent, has decided not to seek re-election, the race is wide open, with three Republicans battling to be the GOP candidate in the Nov. 5 general election.

Because of the three-way race, it is possible that the top two vote-getters might have to face off again in an Oct. 1 runoff.

The Republican winner will square off with Roy Jensen, the Democratic candidate and a member of the non-partisan Spring Hill Fire and Rescue Commission.

Name recognition will be the deciding factor in this race, Ester predicted.

"It depends on how hard they work, how many people they can reach and how many ads they can buy," she said. Issues will become more important as the general election draws closer, she said.

"I think the big factor in this race will be the tax increase and do we really need it. People in my district (much of it in northwest Hernando) have different wants and likes than the people in Spring Hill. Mine is more rural. These people really don't care if they have cable or mail delivered to their door."

The candidates have run shoestring campaigns, mostly using their own money. Of Mills' $3,668 in contributions, $2,568 is made up of loans from herself. Merola has raised $2,776. Of that, $1,300 comes from his own pocket. Amore has financed his campaign primarily with a $4,000 loan.

Fiscal issues have dominated the debate, with all three candidates opposing the proposed increase in the 1996-97 property tax rate and lambasting "wasteful spending."

Also popular is criticizing the current commission for failing to tackle tough decisions, especially those involving spending.

"I don't need to be sending everything out on the ballot to make a decision," said Merola, who takes a dim view of commissioners' willingness to hold referendums or appoint task forces for every sticky political issue.

"I think the people would trust me enough to tell me when we need to raise taxes," he said.

Ironically, though, Merola favors forming an advisory committee of residents to tell government leaders about areas where they can cut spending or streamline departments.

"Clem Merola's not the smartest guy in the world," he said.

Merola said he voted against a 15-year sales tax increase that would have been used for road repair. The measure was defeated in March by a 3-1 ratio. However, he says he could support the new proposal, which limits a 1-cent sales tax to five years and restricts repairs to residential roads. He also favors using a gas tax.

Merola has doubts about the newly formed Economic Development Commission, a public-private partnership run by local business leaders using $244,000 of taxpayer money.

"I'd like to see the county do it themselves," he said. Merola says he thinks Hernando County can become "another Boca Raton, a bedroom community for Tampa Bay."

Merola also thinks impact fees, charged on new construction to pay for infrastructure, need to be kept at current levels to avoid stifling growth. But he favors reviewing them every six months.

Mills, who along with Amore has won an endorsement from the Hernando Builders Association, also favors not raising impact fees because property taxes must be used to maintain the new infrastructure.

"Impact fees increase the cost of running government," she said. Mills also favors offering credits on commercial impact fees to attract new businesses to the county.

Mills likes the concept of the Economic Development Commission, but dislikes the secrecy surrounding its operation, especially while it draws all its money from taxpayers. She also would like to see the commission depend more on private donations.

Mills agrees that the roads desperately need repair, but she opposed the 15-year, 1-cent sales tax increase proposed earlier this year. Instead, she supports the same tax for a four-year period.

If she were on the County Commission now, Mills says, she would vote against the proposed 5 percent pay raise for county employees.

"If private industry's not getting 5 percent . . . and the county has a lot of benefits . . . let them get what private industry gets," she said.

Mills also thinks the county needs a full-time attorney, instead of paying a $72,000 retainer fee to Bruce Snow while he maintains a private practice.

However, she would like to find a way to be able to use Snow's sense of historical perspective and expertise.

Amore, the surprise entry into the race, said he possibly could support a half-mill increase in the property tax rate to maintain services. However, he complains that the commission "didn't cut anything out of the budget."

Amore suggests asking for across-the-board cuts so one department is not hit too hard. He also suggests privatizing the county's human resources department.

"Give that to Job Service," he said.

Amore also is concerned that contributions to charities have been eliminated from recent budgets.

Like his opponents, he blasts commissioners for caving in to special interests and repealing a measure if they get too much flak.

"They can't stick to a decision once they make it," he said.

For example, he cited the decision to make the code enforcement department self-supporting by adopting a surcharge on violations and complaints.

Commissioners backed off after they were flooded with hate mail and angry calls.

"A handful of people come in and sway the votes," he said. "There are 120,000 people in this county."

Amore supports raising the gas tax to pay for road repairs. He says the proposed five-year sales tax referendum is doomed, given the current tax picture.

"You stick people with a property tax and then stick them with a sales tax? And they didn't raise impact fees?"

Amore said officials should stick to an established formula when examining impact fees to make them compatible with growth rates.

On economic development, he wants to give the Economic Development Commission a chance to work.

"Give 'em a year, a year and a half," he said. "If they don't do nothing, kiss 'em off."

Amore also says the county should find some new blood to replace County Administrator Chuck Hetrick, the county's chief for nearly 11 years. He says Hetrick does not get out into the community enough.

"I like seeing them out in the open instead of locked up in a room," he said. "I think the guy's outlived his usefulness. I think he's buying time."

Clem Merola

Clem Merola, 59, is a native of Staten Island, N.Y. He graduated from St. Peter's High School in 1954 and attended Wagner College in Staten Island from 1954 to 1955. He also attended Adelphi College on Long Island from 1973 to 1974 and took courses at Pasco-Hernando Community College in 1994. Merola has worked as a code enforcement officer in Pasco County since March 1995. He is a member of the Brooksville Elks and now serves as its exalted ruler. He also is a member of the Knights of Columbus and the Moose Club. Merola attends St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Spring Hill. In 1994, Merola filed to run for the District 4 commission seat, then held by Tony Mosca Jr., but bowed out before the primary election. Merola lives west of Brooksville in District 3 with his wife, Betty. They are the parents of four children.

ASSETS: a house, an extra lot, a savings account, certificate of deposit.

LIABILITIES: bank loans.

SOURCES OF INCOME: his salary, pension.

Guy "Rusty' Amore

GUY "RUSTY" AMORE, 54, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has lived in Hernando County since 1991. He attended East New York Vocational High School for two years and earned his high school equivalency certificate in 1965. Before that, he served in the Navy from 1959 to 1963. He worked as a food service manager at John F. Kennedy Airport from 1963 to 1973 and operated his own delicatessen from 1974 until 1989. He worked as food service manager at Hofstra University in New York until 1991. He has contracted with Hernando County to operate the snack bar in the Hernando County Government Center in downtown Brooksville for the past four and a half years. Amore was a volunteer with the Manhasset Lakeville Fire Department for 10 years while in New York. Amore has received recognition for his support of two girls' softball teams during 1995 and 1996. He is the father of an adult son and daughter. Amore and his wife, Bunni, live in Spring Hill, part of District 4, but plan to move to District 3 if he is elected. This is Amore's first run for public office.

ASSETS: a house, retirement fund, a savings account, a 1996 Toyota pickup.

LIABILITIES: a home mortgage, an automobile loan, credit card debt.

SOURCES OF INCOME: his vending business.

Barbara "Bobbi' Mills

Barbara "Bobbi" Mills, 55, is a New York native who has been a resident of Florida for 35 years and a resident of Hernando County for 17 years. Mills graduated from Oceanside High School in New York in 1958 and took courses at Florida Presbyterian College in St. Petersburg and Pasco-Hernando Community College in Brooksville. She has worked as a secretary, a substitute teacher and bookkeeper for her husband's farm. Her previous jobs include secretary to the comptroller at Aetna Insurance Co. in New York, secretary to the senior partner at Baker Weeks Co., an insurance secretary in St. Petersburg and a stockbroker for over-the-counter trading in St. Petersburg. Mills' civic activities include serving on the Hernando School Board's superintendent selection committee, serving as a member of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, secretary of the Hernando County Cattlemen's Association and treasurer of the Hernando County Community Coalition. She also has been active in the local Republican Party organization, serving on its executive committee. Mills ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Hernando County School Board in 1994. She lives north of Brooksville with her husband, Ron. They have a 23-year-old son.

ASSETS: a house, savings and checking accounts, mutual funds and government bonds.

LIABILITIES: none listed.

SOURCES OF INCOME: government bonds.