Hernando County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes considers the Nov. 4 general election a referendum on whether he has met his campaign promises and done the job his constituents expected when they elected the Republican four years ago.
Two opponents seeking Dukes' District 2 seat hope to convince voters that they have a better approach.
They are Democrat Jimmy Lodato and Brian Moore, a candidate with no party affiliation.
Dukes, a Hernando County native, has hung his hat on his fiscal conservatism, but did vote with the rest of the commission last month for a slight increase in the property tax rate.
"I can't stop the millage rate from going up because I'm only one vote,'' he explained.
He also has spoken out in favor of the Penny for Projects sales tax referendum that's on the November ballot.
Half of the tax would go to county projects and economic development, and the other half for school projects, and "God knows they need it,'' he said.
Dukes is concerned about the fairness of a high reliance on property taxes. Approximately 8,000 Hernando property owners don't pay any property tax. A few thousand more pay on only half the value of their property because they have unrepaired sinkholes, he said.
Some of the sales tax would be paid by transients and tourists, he noted, and it would help the county avoid future increases in the property tax rate.
"If we do a sales tax,'' Dukes said, "everybody pays.''
While Dukes has also favored keeping a moratorium on impact fees over the last several years to give a boost to local builders, he said that is going to have to end soon. Once the sales tax is passed, he said, the county can bring its impact fee consultant back to the table and have the company recompute appropriate impact fee amounts, considering that extra revenue the sales tax will generate.
By using what he called the "three-legged stool" of property taxes, sales tax revenue and impact fees, Dukes said the burden on the property owner for funding government operations would be reduced.
Dukes counts among his accomplishments the moving forward of projects to add to the artificial reefs off Hernando County's coast, and he noted that the renourishment of Pine Island, the reef expansion and a planned cleanup of Hunter's Lake may soon be among the first projects funded with money from the BP oil spill settlement. He serves both as liaison for the Port Authority and the commission's representative at the organization of counties in line for oil settlement dollars.
Dukes said he has consistently shown leadership, and he is candid about his style. He has riled some of his neighbors in Hernando Beach in recent months over his support of the expansion of Blue Pelican Marina.
"I am what I am," he said. "You've seen me in action. I'm direct, and I try to be straight with people."
Endorsed by state Sen. Wilton Simpson, Dukes has collected approximately $50,000 in political contributions, as of the most recent filing.
Lodato's fundraising is slightly behind that of Dukes with nearly $40,000 in contributions. His endorsements include the local unions representing Hernando teachers, firefighters and county workers.
As a retired businessman, Lodato says, "I feel we can bring this county together.''
In addition to regularly attending County Commission meetings, he has been at many Hernando School Board meetings speaking about issues, including reduced bus service for students. He also has worked to help bring business to the community, including serving as a spokesman last year when Clearwater-based Corporate Jet Solutions was struggling to bring its operation to Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.
The business created 16 jobs, with plans to expand to 50 next year.
Lodato said he believes there are many more economic development opportunities out there and that the county needs to proactively encourage businesses to come to the area. Not enough of that has been done, he argues. Hernando's unique position near Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando put it at a strategic advantage, he said.
He said the atmosphere of budget cutting brought on by the recession and the housing crash have been hard on the county and its public resources, and that needs to turn around.
"What we've had for the last six years is austerity and not conservatism,'' he said.
Lodato said he supports the Penny for Projects sales tax referendum, but he was reluctant at first to see the county combine its effort to get a half-cent approved with the School District's effort to renew its half-cent. He also favors the return of impact fees on new construction.
He points to his experience serving as the president of the Tierra Verde Community Association when he lived in southern Pinellas County in the 1980s. During his time leading the organization, he helped to implement a fire district, negotiated for sheriff's department protection for the community, established a lighting district and enacted a multiyear beautification master plan.
Recently, an anonymous flier surfaced, raising questions about Lodato's candidacy because his wife, Tammy, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy late last year. Her debt was discharged in January.
This is a second marriage for both of them, and each keeps separate finances, Lodato said. Tammy Lodato fought breast cancer several years ago, depleting her finances. Her goat farm failed when she was unable to take care of it and when she helped out other struggling goat farmers.
Lodato said he was appalled that someone would attack his wife's financial situation, given her medical circumstances.
No-party candidate Moore has been a perennial candidate for various federal and state offices, but his run at County Commission is the first time he has sought a local office. He has raised approximately $6,000 for his campaign.
Unlike both Dukes and Lodato, Moore does not believe that it is the county's job to promote economic development because luring industries and more growth would change the fundamental appeal of the rural and countrylike ambiance of Hernando County.
He said his decision to enter the race was largely based on what he saw county officials doing to bring more business to the community.
"I was very frustrated with the direction of the commissioners and the administrator and their promotion of economic development, which I felt would hurt the county and hurt the citizens and burden us,'' Moore said. "And I felt like it was being manipulated in the back rooms, so that's what really angered me.''
A series of issues caught his attention and made him want to change the county's focus.
"They turned down the impact fee and then they began to promote the sales tax and then they began to solicit the School Board (into partnering on the sales tax), luring them with sidewalks and pedestrian bridges when their real reason was, of course, construction and road expansion and plaza expansion," he said.'
Moore also said that the current county leadership relies too heavily on the opinions of the business community to run the county, and he holds up as an example the county administrator's business advisory committee.
"I just saw money as being the incentive and the motivation,'' he said. "What about the people? What about the citizens? How about having a citizens group?
"They were never considered," Moore said. "It just smacked as a form of corruption.''
He said he would like to see Hernando County's economic base diversify to match the needs of a community still largely comprised of older people, with medical-related programs and training as the focus. The draw, he said, would be that Hernando is an attractive place to be because of its rural nature.
"We don't want to become another city,'' Moore said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.