Ann Hildebrand, the longest serving county commissioner that anyone can remember, has had a hand in modernizing nearly every amenity Pasco residents use.
Parks. Libraries. Roads. Sewer systems. Trash collection. Land-use plans. You name it, she's been a part of the major changes Pasco faced as it saw burgeoning growth over the last three decades.
When her term ends next year, she won't be crafting county policy any longer. She said Thursday that she is not running for an eighth term.
"I love what I do, I'm doing what I love," said Hildebrand, 73. "But there comes a time when you want to look at other venues and opportunities."
Don't expect her to leave the public eye.
"I don't think I'll be a stranger," she said. "I don't like to watch the grass grow."
Hildebrand has been rumored as a possible candidate for the state House seat being vacated by Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey. She said Thursday she is looking at her options and doesn't plan to decide soon.
Legg said Hildebrand reached out to him over the past couple of weeks, and "she seemed very interested in that seat." According to Legg, she asked several questions about state policy and about the demographics of the district.
He speculated that candidates might be "keeping their powder dry" to see if term-limited state Sen. Mike Fasano will run.
"The million dollar question is what will Fasano do," he said. "Next to the Lord almighty, I don't know who else could win that seat if he runs."
Fasano, who said he has not decided about his political future, laughed Thursday when asked about the possibility. But he said his decision shouldn't affect Hildebrand's.
"Never wait for the other person to make a decision," he said. "If you believe you can do a good job, and you've got that feel in the belly, it shouldn't stop you."
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A former social worker from Michigan, Hildebrand filed for her first term on the commission back in 1984 only a week before the qualifying deadline. She was one of seven candidates.
She knew County Administrator John Gallagher — who was then on the job for two years — through his wife. He and county budget chief Mike Nurrenbrock agreed to "take her to school" and brief her on issues facing the county.
On Thursday, she and Gallagher "had a moment" to reflect on the changes since then.
"We took Pasco into the next century," she said. "I think you can look and say we've done a tremendous amount for this county. It's been a great ride."
Said Gallagher: "She's been a longtime friend and employer through all the thick and thin in county government."
He added: "Whatever made up her mind to not seek re-election, it's got to be tough. It's been a whole part of her life. It's going to be hard for her to leave it."
During that tenure, Pasco went from a small, rural county to a "major player" in the region. The county did a major overhaul of its sewer and road infrastructure. It built a waste-to-energy incinerator to handle garbage.
Hildebrand and then-Commissioner Mike Wells were major supporters of public votes to expand the parks and library systems.
"From where the county was before she got on board to now, she's really helped improve the quality of life," said fellow Commissioner Jack Mariano. "Parks and libraries all evolved under her tenure."
In recent years, Hildebrand supported the Penny for Pasco sales tax that paid for road improvements, new schools and environmental land acquisition. She's known as a moderate Republican who championed working with other governments in the region. She served several years on the board of Tampa Bay Water and was an inaugural member of the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority.
"That's quite an era of public service that we're losing," said House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "I was losing my baby teeth when she started."
"It will be a great loss for the county," added state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who has helped with Hildebrand's last few campaigns. "She's one of the best public officials Pasco has ever known."
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She's also faced her share of challenges.
Political opponents have attacked Hildebrand in recent years for being a "double-dipper." Under a former loophole in state law, she "retired" without having to leave office and now collects pension benefits on top of her salary.
Hildebrand said in 2000 she was running for commission for the last time. At the time she also enrolled in the state's deferred retirement option.
But she later changed her mind and ran again for the commission in 2004 instead of the Legislature. She "retired" in 2005, taking a $143,000 lump sum payout. She gets a $2,778 monthly retirement benefit on top of her $81,141 annual salary.
Perhaps the strongest opposition she faced came in 1992, when she and two other sitting commissioners, Wells and Sylvia Young, were targeted for defeat. Critics at the time wore buttons bearing the phrase, "Two down, three to go," referring to the 1990 defeat of two other longtime commissioners.
At the time, Fasano was one of those critics. He questioned her loyalty as a Republican on everything from voting to establish impact fees to not attending enough party fundraisers. A GOP state committeeman who had not yet been elected to the Legislature, Fasano said he would "work like a pig" to see that she wasn't re-elected.
Time, it seems, has tempered those feelings. Fasano on Thursday praised Hildebrand for trying to seek consensus on major issues. "I've always looked to her as the voice of reason," he said. "She is someone who would work to form a good compromise. Not just any compromise, but a good one."
Hildebrand said the county's so-called mobility fee that it passed this summer was one of those major issues. Pasco was one of the first Florida counties to adopt the concept of charging different transportation fees for projects in different areas of the county to concentrate growth.
"There have been times when I was afraid we would have a 3-2 vote and we needed to have a 5-0 vote," she said. "I said this is something new and different and we have to show a united front for this to succeed."
The plan passed unanimously.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.
There are three announced candidates in the Republican primary for the District 3 commission seat: health care marketer Chris Gregg, former Mosquito Control Board candidate Nikolas Tzoumas and Republican activist Wil Nickerson.
Nickerson, who ran for the seat in 2008, is a semiretired handyman. He said the county needs to expand its mostly residential tax base by attracting more businesses.
"I think I know how we can bring some in," he said. "I think we're primed for industry. We need to do that before we give away our industrial land to more houses."
Gregg said overspending will be a key message in his campaign. "Federal spending is out of control, and I just want to make sure the county doesn't get out of control with its spending."
Tzoumas did not respond to messages left Thursday.
But many observers say the field isn't set. State GOP committeeman Bill Bunting said he expects at least three more candidates now that Hildebrand is out.
Said House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford: "I think you'll see a lot of good, quality candidates run for that seat."