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Nienhuis faces another fierce challenger

Tony Holt Hernando Today
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:40 PM

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Sheriff Al Nienhuis has had to make significant adjustments to his budget during the past two years due to dwindling revenues.

He learned on the job how to be creative with a budget.

His challenger, Eddie McConnell, said he has more experience doing more with less.

When McConnell ran in 2000 for Hernando County sheriff against Richard Nugent, he resigned his job at the sheriff's office, where he had spent 22 years of his life and earned the rank of sergeant.

He didn't win the election, so he moved on with his law enforcement career by joining smaller police agencies. He worked at police departments in Brooksville, Crystal River and Groveland. He retired earlier this year from Groveland as a captain.

Those experiences, he said, greatly shaped his approach to law enforcement. That's where he learned how to stretch a dollar. He said he is best equipped to be the next sheriff.

McConnell ran twice against Nugent, the first time coming within 3 percentage points of winning. He lost by a larger margin in 2004.

"I didn't fail," said McConnell, who is a Brooksville native. "Failure means you're quitting and I'm definitely not quitting."

When Nienhuis applied to fill Nugent's unexpired term in late 2009, McConnell was among those who also threw his hat into the ring. A lot of familiar faces and names applied for the job, but Nienhuis, who was the undersheriff in neighboring Pasco County for 10 years, was selected by the governor.

Technically, it is McConnell's fourth attempt to become Hernando sheriff.

"I am running now because I want to make a change," he said, "and I can do a better job than the appointed sheriff."

* * * * *

Nienhuis, meanwhile, comes off an impressive victory in the Republican primary, defeating challenger Bobby Sullivan by nearly 30 percent.

Nienhuis began the job in January 2010 under a measure of controversy. He wasn't the preferred appointee among the sheriff's office's brass, but Nienhuis' skeptics came around. The new sheriff earned not only their respect, but their campaign donations.

"The sheriff's office is running very well," he said following his primary victory in August. "I have a good group of people. All 500 plus are working hard to serve the public."

He stood by his record and resisted the urge to fire back at Sullivan, who didn't hold back on his criticism of Nienhuis.

The sheriff touts his agency's successes by using statistics. The sheriff's office scores better than state and national averages in terms of the crime rate, which has been the lowest in at least 20 years. The clearance rate — the percentage of crimes solved — is at its highest during that same span, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

"That's all because of law enforcement," Nienhuis said of the high clearance rate. "There is no other reason. It isn't the bad economy doing that. It's deputies and detectives doing it."

Nienhuis also has said he has a good relationship with county commissioners. When he has been asked to make cuts, he's made them — but he makes sure to tell the board that a budget-cutting trend like the one his department has undergone during the past few years could very well lead to reductions in personnel.

* * * * *

McConnell, meanwhile, said Nienhuis erred when he openly said cutting deputies was a possibility.

"I will not jeopardize the safety of the community to save a dollar," said McConnell.

McConnell said he would do everything to spare residents from having fewer patrol deputies. He would cut civilian staff before he'd lay off anyone in uniform and he also would enact a stricter fuel-saving policy.

He also criticized Nienhuis' decision to drop the accreditation program. The program's cost was small, he said, but the benefits are plentiful.

McConnell, along with former sheriff Thomas Mylander, were among those who disagreed with Nienhuis' decision to ax the program.

"He hasn't been in the trenches like I have," McConnell said of his opponent. "He lacks that law enforcement background."

McConnell pointed out he worked for the sheriff's office for 22 years. He said Nienhuis, by comparison, has only been in Hernando for 22 months.

McConnell, while in Hernando, was a school-resource officer, vice and narcotics detective and a crime-prevention coordinator. He was selected Deputy of the Year in 1981.

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Nienhuis is a St. Petersburg native who before being hired as the second-in-command at the Pasco Sheriff's Office, spent 11 years with the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, rising up the ranks to district commander.

Before that, he was with the Florida Marine Patrol in Tampa.

He has a pilot's license and scuba certification.

Also running in the race is write-in candidate Nicholas Piccinich, of Spring Hill. (352) 544-5283

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