Orange County races to watch 

County's municipal stakes bring the backyard controversy

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In an election year characterized by partisan divides, outlandish campaign budgets, and constant political punditry, voters are often distracted from the races that can have the biggest impact – the local ones. While the candidates may not be the biggest dogs in the junkyard and instant name recognition is a goal achieved by few, their elected authority can affect everything from the value of your home to the amount of crime outside your door. Just because the offices are smaller, don't think they aren't important – or that campaign drama isn't lurking in the background.

Orange County Property Appraiser: Bill Donegan vs. Rick Singh

While the responsibilities of elected officials in these local races are often straightforward enough, the role of property appraiser is one that may confuse Orange County homeowners, voters, and possibly even the candidates in this election. Essentially, appraisers assess the value of residential, commercial, and industrial properties; using that value, property taxes are calculated.

State Certified Appraiser Rick Singh, a Democrat running to unseat incumbent Republican Bill Donegan, claims his opponent doesn't have the proper experience for the office.

"I firmly believe that it is not enough to be a career politician to be the property appraiser," Singh says of Donegan. "I firmly believe the requirement for this office is that someone should have appraisal background."

Though not from a traditional background in property appraisal, Donegan has held the office for nearly 12 years. He has sometimes been a controversial figure, bullying big-ticket developers until, some say, they relent and wind up listed on his campaign donor rolls. But Singh's real problems with Donegan lie in his methods of calculation.

"On average, the misassessment rate is at $100 million a year since this incumbent has been in office," says Singh. "And those are just the cases that go to the value-adjustment board."

Donegan counters that his opponent misreads these numbers for political gain; assessment rates in private practice are not the same as those utilized in county government.

"It is done differently by someone who is valuing a home to sell it," says Donegan. "I value [properties] for the purposes of taxes."

The incumbent also questions his opponent's past, specifically citing an August WFTV 9 News investigation in which Singh was confronted with some questionable campaign finance documents involving several properties he quit-claimed to his wife. According to the news report,

Singh says that he made good on any tax discrepancies involving his estimated $1.3 million in family properties.

"A guy who fills out a financial disclosure, listing properties he doesn't own and didn't pay doc stamps on, is that the kind of person you want as your property appraiser?" says Donegan.

Orange County Tax Collector: Earl K. Wood vs. Jim Huckeba

The race for Orange County Tax Collector, pitting longstanding Democratic incumbent Earl K. Wood (first elected way back in 1964) against virtually unknown Republican challenger Jim Huckeba, is an unexpectedly entertaining circus of stumbles.

Confusion surrounded Wood's decision to run for reelection, with accounts reporting that the 96-year-old accidentally missed the withdrawal deadline for candidacy bids in an attempt to run against then-possible candidate, former Mayor Rich Crotty. Though Wood says he plans to maintain the integrity of the office, Huckeba paints a different picture. (Wood did not return calls for this story.)

"I don't think Mr. Wood has the ability to lead this agency anymore," said Huckeba. "He doesn't go to work anymore. His physical condition doesn't allow him, as most people who are 96."

Reports indicate that Wood is known to be in the office only a few days a week, and for a public servant who collects a $151,082 yearly salary plus pension, Huckeba believes that's a misuse of public funds.

"I just have a fundamental problem with public servants who aren't fulfilling their functions," said Huckeba. Among the changes he is proposing is a complete overhaul and evaluation of the agency's use of technology in assisting taxpayers, along with a consolidation of the office's functions. "Why should [anyone] have to spend two hours in line at the tag office?" Huckeba wonders.

Orange County Sheriff: Jerry Demings vs John Tegg

The race for highest lawman in the land between current Sheriff, Democrat Jerry L. Demings and Republican challenger John Tegg (a repeat of the 2008 race for the same seat), has mostly hinged on legal actions suggesting that the Orange County Sheriff's Office hasn't been forthcoming about the county's actual crime stats.

"It becomes a crime if you're manipulating those numbers up or down," said Tegg, whose supporters, members of Citizens for a Safer Central Florida Inc., have filed a non-monetary suit against the Sheriff, citing falsification of burglary reports as the organization's primary motivation.

Under Deming's authority, crime in Orange County dropped by 23.2 percent, according to Deming's literature, with violent crime diving 28.2 percent. The incumbent, first elected in 2008, calls the allegations of manipulation "ridiculous," according to the Orlando Sentinel.

While Tegg recognizes that there has been some decrease in murder cases, the challenger asserts that it is not enough.

"A few years ago, we had a record level of homicides," says Tegg. "He might have brought it down from record numbers, but it is still too high."

Tegg's plans include the reallocation of dispatched patrol officers, a move to fill 86 open agency positions with returning veterans, and a host of agency-supported training classes for private security officers working along International Drive.

"I am the only candidate that is endorsed by law enforcement," says Tegg, a former police chief in Belle Isle and Edgewood. "Everyone in law enforcement that has worked for him has endorsed me. I think that's a huge statement."

Orange County Commission District 3: Lui Damiani vs Pete Clarke

Though not a partisan battle, this cycle's lone county commission race, between Lui Damiani and Pete Clarke, isn't devoid of controversy. Damiani points to his previous experience working as Commissioner of District 3 as his major qualification for the role. "To me the most important thing is that I am former County Commissioner," Damiani told the Orlando Sentinel editorial board earlier this year. "I served in the role, I have a track record, a proven track record for which I am very, very proud."

Appointed by then-Governor Charlie Crist after the arrest of former Commissioner Mildred Fernandez on charges of bribery in 2010, Damiani served the county for more than a year before Governor Rick Scott appointed current District 3 Commissioner, John Martinez. Widely held as the obvious front-runner for the position, Damiani's campaign has been afforded the luxury of financial backing of attorneys, developers and lobbyists.

But it might just be that kind of monetary leg-up that is fueling the candidate's opposition. Even the primary losers are now backing relative unknown Clarke as their candidate of choice, citing Mayor Teresa Jacobs' recent involvement in selective text-message deletion as reasoning behind their support. Damiani would likely bring more of the same, they say. And the same doesn't look so good these days.

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