TAMPA — Three Republicans are vying for the District 4 seat on the Hillsborough County Commission — the only candidates running in a conservative district that includes all of eastern and part of southern Hillsborough.
All three — Rick Cochran, Janet Dougherty and Stacy White — have strong financial support, backgrounds in public service and endorsements from elected officials. They all claim the conservative mantle as champions of small, limited government and low taxes.
Those principles will be tested as the county gets ready for another period of rapid population growth.
The county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization predicts an additional 600,000 people will call the county home by 2040. The coming wave will force county commissioners to make tough decisions about funding expensive infrastructure to handle the growth, especially roads, bridges and mass transit.
Currently Republicans dominate the seven-member commission with a 5-2 advantage. District 4 is one of four geographically defined districts. The remaining three districts span the whole county. County commissioners are paid $95,523.
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Cochran, a former Tampa police detective, said he thinks there is enough money in the county budget to pay for the county’s transportation needs without new or higher taxes. He does not support a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax increase for roads and transit. County officials are pushing ahead with plans to hold the tax vote in 2016, preceded by a public information campaign this fall.
“When you have a $3 billion budget, the money is there,” Cochran said. “It’s just making the hard decisions of where you’re going to move it from and why, and you explain that.”
Cochran, 49, said his experience as a leader in police work has given him the decisiveness and decision-making ability to serve on the county commission. During his time on the police force, Cochran said, he reinvigorated the domestic violence squad through more aggressive collection of evidence and increasing “roundups” of accused abusers from once a month to once a week.
“That’s not how it was done in the past; it was a lot of moving paperwork,” Cochran said. “I wasn’t happy or satisfied with that. I didn’t think it was providing justice for the victims.”
Cochran points out he is the only one of the three candidates who isn’t focused on his business. White is a pharmacist and Dougherty works as a consultant to companies on environmental regulations and compliance. Retired and an empty nester, Cochran said he will be able to commit himself full time to commission duties.
“I’m going to be dedicated 100 percent to this job and I’m the only one of the candidates who can say that.”
Cochran has raised $141,455 in campaign contributions as of the June report, putting him second to Dougherty’s $158,515 and ahead of White’s $76,066. Cochran got early financial support from police unions around the state, but developers, hoteliers and attorneys have also written him checks.
His endorsements include Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and state Rep. Dana Young of Tampa, both Republicans.
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White, who is finishing four years on the county school board, claims to be the most conservative of the candidates in the race. Proof of that, he said, is that Cochran held a leadership post in a police union, the Tampa Police Benevolent Association, and supported Democrat Alex Sink in the 2010 governor’s race. Dougherty, meanwhile, is endorsed by Tampa City Councilman Charlie Miranda, a Democrat.
White, 41, has staked out a social conservative’s stance on the school board. One of his first actions as a board member was to make a motion to start meetings with a prayer. The board voted down the motion 6-1.
“I am a Christian and both a social and fiscal conservative,” White said. “I can’t think of anything that will carry over in a negative light. My experience on the school board would be a positive.”
Transportation is one of the areas White said he wants to focus on if elected. Living in Valrico, which he calls the “poster child for sprawl,” White said he’s aware of the need to relieve traffic jams, especially in the eastern part of the county. But he says the board should look for alternatives to a sales tax increase to pay for projects.
One lower-cost alternative he supports are smart traffic signals, one of the recommendations by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county’s transportation planning group.
A pharmacist in the Valrico area the past 17 years, White received a number of campaign checks from other pharmacists, though most were for less than $500. The contribution limit is $1,000 per election.
White also received financial support from former and current elected Republicans, including former state Rep. Rich Glorioso, $200; former Plant City Mayor Rick Lott, $500; and State Attorney Mark Ober, $125. Former Hillsborough County Republican Chairman Art Wood donated $250 to White’s campaign.
White also got checks from several lobbyists: Ron Pierce, $1,000 in individual contributions and $1,500 from each of Pierce’s companies, ASG Consulting Group and RSA Consulting Group; Todd Pressman $300; and Louis Betz and Associates, $500.
White also got a $500 check from American Traffic Solutions, which operates red light cameras in Tampa and unincorporated Hillsborough County.
Local leaders who endorsed White include Ober, Sheriff David Gee and state Rep. Dan Raulerson.
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Dougherty, a south-county businesswoman, said 30 years of work on land-use, water management and transportation boards make her the most well-prepared candidate in the District 4 race.
Dougherty said she oversaw a $3.5 million budget as Gov. Jeb Bush’s appointee to the Southwest Florida Water Management District board. She dealt with water conservation on the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and the Tampa Bay Estuary Policy Board, and land use working with other South Shore residents on community-based plans.
“These issues that come in front of the county commission are complex issues,” Dougherty said. “I have private-sector experience and I understand budgets. … I have immersed myself in the understanding of infrastructure and budgets.”
Like White and Cochran, Dougherty said she is not in favor of raising taxes. But at a Tiger Bay political forum, she challenged the assertion by Cochran and another commission candidate that there is enough money in the county’s $3.38 billion budget to reduce the backlog of needed transportation projects.
Dougherty, 52, said that reasoning is simplistic because nearly $1 billion of the total budget is in enterprise funds — mainly utilities, that are operated like self-supporting businesses. Residents pay for water, sewer and garbage service and that money supports the utilities department.
A budget category called special revenues takes up more than $1 billion of the budget. This consists of local, state and federal grants that are restricted for special purpose. The general fund budget, supported by sales and property taxes, makes up the final third of budget.
Citizen programs, such as law enforcement, environmental protection, parks and recreation, are included in this chunk, which comes to $638 million.
“I’m not saying there’s not money within the county budget to do it,” Dougherty said, referring to the transportation backlog. “I’m just saying once you look at all these departments that already have encumbered monies … you get down to a small number. They all have their missions; they all have their scope of work.”
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If elected, Dougherty said she will push to have more county purchases of goods and services bid out and fewer go to sole-sourced contracts. She cited the county’s action in 2012 to bid out garbage services that resulted in lower prices and better service.
Dougherty said she also wants to give residents in the district more of an opportunity to be heard. She plans to have open community meetings at least one night every month. She will move the meetings around the large district, which includes Brandon, Valrico, Plant City, FishHawk, Riverview and Wimauma.
“That’s the nature of good government: by the people and for the people,” Dougherty said. “It’s not one person making the decisions; you get the collective input of the residents.”
Dougherty has raised $158,515 in campaign funds, more than her two opponents. Contributors included people in a number of businesses, including those real estate, architecture and land development.
She raised a large portion of her contributions, $15,000, from the maritime industry, capitalizing on connections she made as president of the Propeller Club/Port of Tampa, an organization that supports ship repair and other related businesses.
Dougherty also raised $9,200 from area attorneys.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden have endorsed Dougherty.