After eight years on the County Commission, June Ester figured she had been in office long enough. "I believe in term limits for most elected officials," she said.
But, at 53, Ester was not ready to retire. Nor was she eager to quit politics entirely.
So when Property Appraiser Les Samples announced that he would not seek re-election after 21 years in office, Ester saw an opportunity for a new political career, one that matched her background in real estate.
"I know how government works from the inside and the outside, having served nine years on the Planning and Zoning Board and the past eight on the County Commission," said Ester, a Republican, who lives in Royal Highlands in northwest Hernando. "I have a background in real estate . . . and know how to manage people."
A former Brooksville City Council member and mayor for 16 years, Alvin Mazourek also has had his share of political experience. And he has been running a private appraisal business for 13 years.
For Mazourek, also a Republican, running for property appraiser seemed a natural choice, especially now that his children are grown and his son can manage the family business.
"I am running for property appraiser to better serve the citizens of Hernando County by providing fair and equitable assessments for all real estate in the county," he said. "Knowledge and understanding of the appraisal process is not something that I lack."
David DeWald, the third Republican candidate and a former construction director for the Hernando school district, said friends and family prompted him to seek office.
DeWald, a resident of Springwood Estates, is a newcomer to the county and has never held political office. But he said his lack of political experience will make him a more impartial appraiser. He campaigns as someone with good management skills who has no ties to the local establishment. "I don't owe anybody anything," he said.
Welcome to one of the more hotly contested races this year. The three Republican candidates will square off in the Sept. 3 primary, with the winner facing no-party candidate John Kouba in the general election. No Democrats are running.
Two of the Republican candidates, Ester and Mazourek, have led the way in campaign contributions among countywide races. Mazourek has raised more than $11,000; Ester, close to $8,000; DeWald, $1,740.
The campaign has centered on four key issues: the candidates' job qualifications; fairness of assessments; giving residents more access to the appraiser's office and improving its image; and the lawsuits involving Samples' appraisals of homes in Timber Pines.
The race also has brought some old east-west tensions to the surface.
Ester, who has received most of her campaign contributions from Spring Hill, has raised the issue by describing Mazourek as "old Brooksville."
Mazourek's contributors include several longtime Brooksville residents, such as Margaret Ghiotto, owner of Rogers' Christmas House Village.
But Mazourek said it is inaccurate and inappropriate to suggest his allegiances are to Brooksville. His campaign has stressed the need for fair assessments countywide.
"I think people should stay away from east and west," Mazourek said. "Let's be one county."
In fact, campaign contributions show that DeWald and Ester have drawn from both Brooksville and Spring Hill.
Ester's contributors include several well-known Brooksville residents, among them Joseph Piermatteo of Florida Crushed Stone, Pat Brewer of Brewer Memorial Funeral Homes and County Attorney Bruce Snow.
Ester's two largest contributors are "The Stars" Federated Republican Women's Organization, which is based in Brooksville and supports Republican women candidates, and Tarpon Springs eye surgeon and developer James P. Gills. Each contributed $500.
The Hernando Builders Association also is backing Ester, mainly because of her management skills and "pro-business" stance, association executive director Nita Beckwith said. "Mr. Mazourek is qualified as well," she said. "It was a close call."
Ester was one of three commissioners who recently voted not to raise impact fees on new-home construction. The vote was seen as a victory for the county's home-building industry.
Mazourek's major contributors, apart from himself, include Brooksville lawyer and county Chamber of Commerce president Darryl Johnston, physician B.R. Raju, St. Petersburg Beach appraiser Dan Richardson and Brooksville real estate broker Thelma Dawson.
Qualifications have been a central issue in the campaign.
Of the three, only Mazourek holds an appraiser's license.
"I think working in the appraisal business definitely gives me an edge," Mazourek said. "How are you going to judge your staff if you have really limited experience in it?"
Ester said she appraised property when she owned her own real estate business and managed Pat Fleck Real Estate in Spring Hill. She intends to apply for a state appraiser's license this year. She holds a real estate license.
Ester did not graduate from high school or receive her high school equivalency certificate. She did take some non-credit courses at Pasco-Hernando Community College. "I would consider the past eight years I've had here a college education," she said.
She touts her management abilities and political experience.
"Nobody should go in there not knowing something about appraising," Ester said. "However, the appraiser does not go out and appraise your property. . . . I think management skills are essential."
DeWald holds a real estate license and has extensive management experience in the construction and maintenance business. However, as the Times reported last week, he is not licensed as a general contractor, building inspector or nursing home administrator, all of which he claimed in campaign literature. DeWald said he wanted to show his diverse background, not mislead voters.
"We don't need another appraiser," DeWald said. "What we need is a strong, experienced manager."
Mazourek responded: "I've been managing my own successful appraisal business for 13 years. . . . I have my own staff and budget."
All the candidates say they would improve public relations in the property appraiser's office and make it more user-friendly.
"People aren't friendly," DeWald said. "The attitude needs to change."
Ester said the office needs to update its aerial mapping system and put its property records online so the public can have greater access to information.
She favors scheduling evening and Saturday office hours and moving the property appraiser's office to the government center to "save approximately $50,000 in rent."
Mazourek wants to open a west-side office to provide more convenience to Spring Hill residents.
Both he and DeWald questioned whether moving the Brooksville office, in the former AmSouth Bank building, would save the county any money. The county would still have to pay rent on the building, just from different funds, they said.
All three candidates favor reviewing agricultural and greenbelt exemptions and would lobby legislators to change state homestead exemptions so that those who live in homes valued at less than $25,000 would pay some taxes.
Ester said she also would lobby for partial-year assessments on new homes so the county could "collect more money in taxes." DeWald would seek a change in state law so that developers would be required to pay back taxes on land previously zoned residential.
The candidates all stress the need to provide fair assessments and explain to homeowners how they are calculated.
"They should understand what their properties are being assessed and how," Mazourek said.
Ester wants to improve the arbitration process for homeowners so disputes can be resolved before they reach the Value Adjustment Board.
Another key issue facing the candidates: how to handle lawsuits filed against Samples by Timber Pines residents, who say Samples unfairly raised property assessments on their retirement community by using a method that was not applied throughout the county.
Samples said the lawsuits _ filed in 1993, 1994 and 1995 _ had no bearing on his decision not to seek re-election.
DeWald said he would settle the Timber Pines lawsuits, as well as a suit Samples filed against the county's Value Adjustment Board, which reviews appeals of appraisals.
Both Ester and Mazourek said they would like to see the courts resolve the disputes as quickly as possible.
JUNE ESTER, 53, has served two terms on the Hernando County Commission. Before taking office, Ester owned a real estate business and managed Fleck Real Estate in Spring Hill. A former Democrat, Ester was chairwoman of the county's Tourist Development Council for four years and spent nine years on the county's planning and zoning board. She belongs to various community groups, including the Fine Arts Council and Friends of the Library. Ester attended high school in Lexington, Ky., but did not graduate. She has taken non-credit courses at Pasco-Hernando Community College and at Gulfport Academy in Gulfport. A native of Cincinnati, Ester has a 27-year-old daughter, Sharon. Ester and her husband, William E., live in Royal Highlands in northwest Hernando. ASSETS: a home, vacant lot, bank savings. LIABILITIES: a mortgage and truck loan. SOURCES OF INCOME: Hernando County commissioner and husband's incomes.
DAVID M. DeWALD, 52, has worked in the construction and maintenance business since 1979. DeWald, a Vietnam-era U.S. Army veteran, moved to Spring Hill from Richmond, Va., in 1993 to become director of construction for the Hernando school district. Without explanation he was not reappointed to his job. DeWald appealed the action and received a cash settlement from the School Board. He took electrical and mechanical engineering courses at Old Dominion University and studied liberal arts/pre-law at the College of William & Mary. He received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Pacific Western University, which offers degrees based on an applicant's completed work or experience. DeWald remains out of work. His wife, Mary, is a teacher at Pine Grove Elementary School, and they have three children: Richard, 30, Kimberly, 26, and Jacqueline, 23. ASSETS: a home, investments. LIABILITIES: mortgage. SOURCES OF INCOME: Hernando County School Board and the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security.
ALVIN R. MAZOUREK, 51, is a longtime Brooksville resident who served on the Brooksville City Council for 16 years. The former mayor and real estate salesman has owned and operated A.R.M. Appraisal Service since 1983. He holds an associate's degree from Ocala Junior College and has attended the University of South Florida. He is a member of various professional groups, including National Association of Real Estate Appraisers. He and his wife, Diane, live in Brooksville and have two children: Robin, 27, and Randolph, 24. ASSETS: a car, investments, home, waterfront lot, rental house, building, undeveloped land. SOURCES OF INCOME: A.R.M. Appraisal Service and spouse's earnings from Rogers Christmas House Village.