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Voters give a clear answer
Amendment 1's strong support sends a message.
By BARBARA BEHRENDT, JOHN FRANK and TOM MARSHALL, Times Staff Writers
Published January 31, 2008
Republicans, right, wait for ballots in Spring Hill on Tuesday. Nearly 71 percent of voters here supported Amendment 1.
[Stephen J. Coddington | Times]
BROOKSVILLE - More than 45 percent of Hernando County's eligible voters turned out to cast ballots in Tuesday's primary election, choosing the same presidential candidates as the state and overwhelmingly approving Amendment 1.
Most county Republicans backed John McCain, while Hernando Democrats were wild about Hillary Clinton. But the real star was the property-tax-cutting Amendment 1.
The local landslide for the amendment is a "mandate," said County Commissioner Jeff Stabins. "It's clear that our constituents want us to continue to cut spending and lower taxes."
Officials estimate Amendment 1 will cost Hernando County government $7-million in the next fiscal year.
"Unless we can figure out how to solve the jail problem, we'll have to resort to some cuts in service," Stabins said. The jail, he said, "is sucking millions and millions of county dollars."
County officials are looking for ways to cut jail spending, such as using more ankle bracelets on low-risk offenders, and they are analyzing arrest data to see if everyone arrested needs to be behind bars.
Commissioner Rose Rocco said the jail is a good starting point for cutting expenses. "The jail is really a budget buster and that's another mandate," she said.
"This is the voice of the people," said Commissioner Diane Rowden. "We accept that and we'll move on and do whatever we can to make it work."
She also worried about fees that may be added and services possibly lost to absorb the financial hit.
"We're into the muscle," she said. "When you cut into muscle, you affect the way you walk and the way to handle things. We're not going to be able to walk the same way and there are things that we've become accustomed to having that we won't have anymore."
Realtor Gary Schraut, who pushed a yes vote on Amendment 1, hopes the approval is the first step toward fixing a broken taxing system. While not wanting to lose firefighters and deputies, he said government must adopt a more realistic view of spending priorities.
"When the money was coming in, they were buying what was on their 'want list,' but until we get this thing turned around, they should focus on their 'need list,'" he said.
Rowden, Stabins and commission Chairman Chris Kingsley are all up for re-election this year. The same groups in Hernando that have pushed for property tax cuts have also targeted the incumbents.
Rowden said the election comes down to a choice of the people, just like the amendment. "I'm in there to get a job done, not there to get a job," she said.
Stabins also was not worried about his political future, based just on the high voter interest in approving Amendment 1.
"I think some of those same people were also surprised to see Hernando County Republicans select John McCain," he said. "I think there are dual messages here. ... I think there is a future for the maverick Republican in Hernando County."
Brooksville City Council member Lara Bradburn said the strong vote for property tax cuts was "not totally unexpected ... .The taxpayers need relief and we at the city have been trying to diligently provide that relief."
The City Council will soon decide whether to turn city emergency service dispatching over to the sheriff. Open positions are being scrutinized carefully. Other savings through privatization are also being explored.
But Bradburn said those measures will likely not be enough to cover what will be lost. Estimates put the loss for the city at $163,000 in tax revenues in the coming year.
It is not yet clear how much schools might lose from the passage of Amendment 1, said Deborah Bruggink, finance director for the Hernando County School Board. But she's not convinced Gov. Charlie Crist can find the money to keep his promise to shield schools from the tax relief measure.
"Do I think he'll get what he's asking for?" Bruggink asked. "I don't think he will."
As it stands, Hernando Schools will lose $13.2-million over the next five years due to Amendment 1, she said. Next year, that amounts to $1.1-million in operating funds and $400,000 in capital money.
Crist has asked for $138.5-million in his next state education budget to protect schools from those losses.
But that amount falls short of the $161.3-million shortfall state officials are predicting for schools next year, Bruggink said. And the governor's overall education budget calls for more than $600-million in new spending, which might not be realistic with a sinking economy.
She said Crist's budget proposal shifts more responsibility for school transportation and materials to local districts. And it doesn't appear to provide any funding to cover losses in capital budgets.
"He may give us the capacity to raise the local taxes," Bruggink said. "But then I guess we have to take the heat for it."
Hernando County figured prominently into the statewide electoral picture. Voters here approved Amendment 1 by 71 percent. Only 10 of the state's 67 counties approved the measure by a greater proportion, according to an analysis of election results.In Florida, the most ardent support for the amendment - 82 percent - came from Lee County, on the southwest coast.
Among neighboring counties, Hernando finished in the middle, behind Citrus and Sumter, but ahead of Pasco.
Hernando voters also showed up in droves for Democrat Hillary Clinton, giving her 60.5 percent of the county's vote. The New York senator won a total of 47 Florida counties but only one county, Osceola with 61.3 percent, endorsed Clinton by a greater margin .
An analysis shows 53 percent of the county's registered Republicans and 47 percent of the county's registered Democrats cast ballots.
It's difficult to compare the turnout to past elections, but it's safe to say it exceeded all expectations. It rivalled the 48 percent of voters who cast ballots in the 2006 general election, dominated by a number of statewide and local races.
The last competitive presidential primary for both parties was in 2000. Turnout reached 17 percent but Florida voted March 14, well after a front-runner emerged. (In the 2004 presidential primary, 33 percent of Democrats voted. Republicans didn't have a contest.)