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Eight jockey for seat on commission

When Ann Hildebrand announced last fall that she would not run again for the County Commission seat she has held for nearly 30 years, political observers predicted a bevy of candidates would jump in the race to replace her.

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They were right.

The field for the District 3 seat now has eight candidates after former United Way of Pasco president Susan Arnett filed initial campaign paperwork this week.

With so many candidates to write about, GOP state committeeman Bill Bunting joked to a reporter, "You'd better bring a couple of pens; you may run out of ink."

Arnett's 11-year tenure at the United Way gives her a larger community profile than others, and she is friends with Hildebrand, who had once been a social worker in Michigan.

Hildebrand, who met Arnett while serving on the United Way board of directors, acknowledged their friendship but said she is not making an endorsement right now.

"Susan is a viable candidate," she said. "She knows the community because of her United Way experience."

A native of Russellville, Ark., Arnett called Hildebrand "an incredible mentor."

Arnett, 48, said she understands commissioners faced tough budget decisions the past several years, leading to cuts to social services. She said her former organization also had to downsize because of reduced donations.

"I feel like my work with United Way was a portion of what the county was looking at on a bigger level," she said.

Just days in, her campaign is already attracting attention from other candidates.

Randy Evans, a retired U.S. Coast Guard investigator, questioned why the county uses its utility "roundup" program to offset a portion of the annual $250,000 grant for social service programs administered through United Way. The voluntary utility contributions offset property taxes that would otherwise cover the grants.

"I don't know if the county should be in the business of funneling taxpayer money to nonprofits," he said. "I'd rather see this roundup program going to deferring this idiotic park fee."

There are five other Republicans in the race. Homewood Suites sales director Karen King is making her first run for the commission after narrowly losing a School Board race in 2010. A member of the Tourist Development Council, King said she wants to work with business groups to organize events that help small companies.

"It would be great to bring in more larger businesses," she said. "But the little guys really need our help."

The race also includes health care marketer Chris Gregg, who is basing his campaign on reducing spending and has placed dozens of campaign signs around the county. Other candidates include GOP activist Wil Nickerson, former Mosquito Control Board candidate Nikolas Tzoumas and Jeff Palmer of New Port Richey.

The winner of the August Republican primary would face Democrat Matt Murphy, a former state committeeman. He said he wants to continue planning efforts that began with a 2008 Urban Land Institute report and also use more incentives to attract businesses to the county.

"I don't foresee anybody else coming in," Bunting said.

But he added that someone else might file after weighing the mathematics of the race. Earning a large enough slice of votes this election might be easier than others, he said, because of the crowded field and low voter turnout.

"If you think you want to run, how many votes do you need?" he said.

Although commissioners are elected countywide, they must live in the district they represent. Several of the candidates — Arnett, King, Palmer and Murphy — must move into the district by Election Day.

The district was redrawn this year and now stretches from the Gulf Harbors neighborhood south of State Road 54 before stopping just short of the Shops at Wiregrass.

The field might narrow before the June 4 to 8 qualifying period. Candidates who aren't able to collect enough petitions to make the ballot by May 7 can choose to pay a $4,800 qualifying fee.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Eight jockey for seat on commission 04/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 8:58pm]
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