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Growth, spending at forefront of commission race

The County Commission primary elections pruned a throng of contenders; now the victors set their sights on winning the allegiance of voters as they prepare for November.

The District 1 race features former Republican state Rep. Jeff Stabins against Democrat D.W. "Bill" Fagan, a businessman. District 3 pits Democratic County Commissioner Diane Rowden against Republican Mark Cattell, a lawyer. And in District 5, perennial candidate Janey Baldwin, a Republican, squares off against Democrat Chris Kingsley, a former commissioner.

Steven Ashmore is a no-party candidate in District 3 and Richard Power a write-in candidate in District 5.

Save for Ashmore, Power, Fagan and Cattell, the field boasts considerable campaign experience. As in the primaries, county spending, growth management and property rights are sure to be central themes.

District 1

Bill Fagan, making his first bid for public office, describes himself as a fiscally conservative Democrat. Fagan, 59, lives in Spring Hill and lists co-ownership of two area businesses, Waste Away Systems and Patriot Lending Service.

The Times last week revealed Fagan's interest in a third business, Sweet Secretions Inc., which sells a sex enhancement dietary supplement over the Internet. Fagan says the business is his wife's.

Better management of growth tops Fagan's campaign agenda. Specifically, he says large residential and commercial developers have been given a pass. It is essential, he said, for them to pay a greater share for roads, schools, utilities and other infrastructure their projects require.

For Fagan, that means stiff impact fees and rigorous scrutiny of proposed developments. Attention must also be paid, he said, to the environmental threat further growth poses.

Storm runoff is fouling waterways with fertilizers and other pollutants, he said, even as it endangers drinking water supplies. Development also is encroaching on wildlife areas that must be preserved if Hernando is to retain its sense of place, he said.

Development near the black bear habitat west of U.S. 19 near Osowaw Boulevard has been controversial in recent years. Fagan said it is too late for that area _ the battle is lost _ but that more should be done to restrain development near wildlife habitat along U.S. 19 north of State Road 50.

Developers who circumvent growth management rules must be dealt with harshly, he said.

"County government has to step up," Fagan said. "Here's the major fines. And I don't mean token fines."

Fagan also faults county leaders for spending frivolously. He said he has more to learn about certain issues, and intends to, but that he views the proposed $5-million emergency operations center in Brooksville, for example, as too costly.

Jeff Stabins, District 44 state representative from 1992 to 1998, is now a teacher of at-risk students for the county school system.

Like Fagan, Stabins puts growth management high on his list of concerns. He calls for a summit of business, political and civic leaders to create a more comprehensive and effective strategy for dealing with development.

In conjunction with that effort, Stabins said it was critical to find a way for the county, the city of Brooksville and the Hernando School Board to work more cooperatively. Creating a rule that would force developers to donate land for schools, for instance, will not be possible without a joint effort, Stabins said.

Stabins said not only must laws be enacted that demand concessions from developers, but other avenues of holding their feet to the fire should also be explored, which is one reason he wants a growth summit.

"I support every available means to get more from the mega-developers," he said.

Though opposed to the mandatory recycling program in Spring Hill, Stabins is a strong recycling advocate. He proposes tripling the number of drop-off bins in the county and getting schools and businesses involved in a countywide recycling effort.

Stabins, 44, also said county leaders are spending too freely. More caution and thought is called for, he said. Asked about the emergency operations center, Stabins said there was a need for one, but that the $5-million price tag seemed steep.

Fagan and Stabins said they were just starting to learn about each other's positions and declined to comment on each other's campaigns.

District 3

Republican Mark Cattell, a 31-year-old lawyer, was lured to Hernando after graduating from the University of Florida's law school in 2001 to work as a child advocate in the 5th Judicial Circuit. He does some freelance legal work now but is focused chiefly on his campaign.

According to Cattell, county spending has increased 75 percent in the last four years, far outstripping the rate of population growth. While budget expansion should be expected as the county grows, he maintains that Hernando has a tendency to spend all the money it takes in.

For instance, Cattell said, the proposed emergency operations center is too elaborate and should be scaled back to trim the $5-million projected cost. He calls for a moratorium on county building projects like the center so that cost savings can be explored.

In addition to his focus on curbing spending, Cattell seeks to revamp the ordinance process.

Too often, he said, commissioners cave to a vocal minority, direct their staff to develop an ordinance and make it law with little regard for consequences. The result, Cattell said, is ordinances that often infringe on personal property rights.

What is needed, according to Cattell, is a system that allows for greater public participation when ordinances are being developed by the staff. Also, board members should quit passing laws that are merely copies of those used in other counties and give greater thought to what's right for Hernando, he said.

According to Cattell, his opponent, Democratic County Commissioner Diane Rowden, is well-intentioned, but she micromanages the concerns of individual residents. Also, he said, Rowden has a tendency to personalize issues and speak rashly, thus alienating people.

"I think she is a neat person," Cattell said. "But it's the leadership style that is divisive and confrontational."

Rowden, 54, is a self-described servant of the citizen and has helped pass laws that force developers' projects to meet stricter aesthetic standards and require public hearings for large commercial developments.

Only the ill-informed, Rowden said, would allege that county spending is out of control. Much of the spending increases in the last several years are in enterprise funds such as those that feed the development and utilities departments.

As a result, the spending increases can largely be attributed to the fact that more people are coming to the county and contributing to those funds. The actual pot of money that commissioners control, she said, is much smaller than the overall budget, and much of that comprises salaries.

Rowden believes that government is supposed to provide services to residents and thinks it is preposterous to take issue with projects such as the emergency operations center in light of the active hurricane season.

It costs money to construct a building that can withstand 145 mph winds, she said, and without a sturdy emergency operations center, residents could be left without a lifeline during a catastrophe.

As for her leadership style, Rowden said it is her job to help residents solve problems they may have with county government, as it is to stand up for what she feels is right. If people think that is grandstanding or being brazen, so be it, she said.

"I'm not afraid," Rowden said, "to get involved in something that might be perceived as controversial."

If elected to another term, Rowden said, she would seek to partner with the Enrichment Center to build an emergency shelter for residents with special needs and create a customer service system for county residents.

Under the system, a central call center would hear complaints and questions from the public. Calls could be tracked, Rowden said, to ensure problems are resolved.

Steven Ashmore, owner of a Brooksville mortgage business, is also running in District 3 as a no-party candidate. Ashmore said he came to Hernando from Pinellas in 1999 to escape the county's liberal tax-and-spend policies, only to find the same in his new home.

Ashmore's chief aim is to roll back county spending.

District 5

Republican Janey Baldwin, 74, is making her third bid for County Commission. She lost in the primary in 1992 and in the general election in 2000.

Baldwin's chief criticism of county government is that it lacks leadership. As a result, Baldwin said, priorities are imbalanced and spending unchecked.

Both the social services and legal departments are bloated, Baldwin said. Social services is merely a referral service to nonprofit agencies, she said, a function that the county need not perform.

The Legal Department is overstaffed, underworked and headed by an attorney, Garth Coller, who Baldwin said is little more than an office manager.

While some, including Rowden, argue that spending needs to increase as the county grows, Baldwin says such reasoning is all wrong. By asking the right questions, spending can be curbed even as the needs of residents increase, she said.

Asked if she would seek to eliminate jobs in the legal and social services departments, Baldwin said that was not the place to start. Rather, a thorough review of the two departments is in order to determine where best to cut costs, she said.

The impact of what she considers wasteful spending is felt not only by seniors on fixed incomes who see their fees and property tax assessments rising, but by younger people who find it difficult to start a life in Hernando.

Government, Baldwin said, should limit itself and seek to return every possible penny to taxpayers.

"Government is supposed to look out for our health, safety and welfare," she said. "This is not a nanny state in Hernando County."

Chris Kingsley, 52, was elected to the commission in 1998 and lost his seat to sitting Commissioner Robert Schenck in 2002.

Although Kingsley believes some county building projects can be scaled back to save money, spending is hardly wild, he says.

What is being spent, he said, is going toward necessary services that residents have asked to have.

Looking back, Kingsley said he is proudest of having gotten a gas tax approved to pay for a road repair program when on the board, and for bringing a rail park to the Hernando County Airport that has spurred economic development.

For Kingsley, growth is the pressing issue facing Hernando. More laws are not what is most needed, however, he said; what's critical is to stop allowing exemptions to the county's comprehensive growth plan.

Also important, he said, is putting certain rural and agricultural areas essential to the health of county drinking water off limits to development.

When Kingsley lost in 2002, some pointed to a seeming arrogance in his demeanor. But the candidate said he had merely failed to communicate well, and that he had worked to improve in that area.

"I didn't come across as a very good listener," Kingsley said. "I have a passion for some of this stuff. And when I think I am right, I can kind of have tunnel vision."

Richard A. Power is a write-in candidate in District 5. He is a strong privatization advocate and a critic of county spending and supports a return of "Christian principles" to government.

Election Day is Nov. 2. The final day to register to vote in the election is Oct. 4.

Will Van Sant can be reached at (352) 754-6127 or vansantsptimes.com.

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