Sunday, May 27, 2018
News Roundup

Longtime Pasco property appraiser faces newcomer

In the race for property appraiser, it's all about the past and the future.

Mike Wells, a 16-year incumbent and former county commissioner, stresses the strides that have been made since he took control of the office responsible for tracking property values that produce an annual tax roll for local governments' budgets.

"I'm going to run on my own strengths and my record, just the way I've always done it," said Wells, 65, a Republican from Dade City who has racked up endorsements from a host of GOP colleagues, including House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.

His opponent on the Nov. 6 ballot, Allison Newlon, admits she has an uphill battle.

A political newcomer, the 42-year-old San Antonio Democrat has no prior government service. She points out her 11 years of experience as a real estate broker and retail management career as evidence she should be allowed to replace Wells, as well as improvements she would make in the services of the property appraiser's office.

"I'm facing an incumbent, and the challenge is to convince people that I have a good ideas that will be helpful to them," Newlon said. "I have pure and honest reasons for getting in the race. I thought, 'Wow, we could be doing some things better.' "

If that's the case, Wells wonders how.

He points to the property appraiser's website, which has drawn 1.9 million unique visitors since it was created in 1999. He said over the years, more and more information has been available online and property owners are able to do more transactions there, such as apply for homestead exemptions.

"I was surprised at how the homestead application has been received so well," he said. "It appears that over half the homestead applications are being done on the website, which I think is wonderful. People are busy. They've got soccer practice and two kids and probably two jobs."

Wells expects to save $10,000 to $20,000 with the service. He says over the years he has saved taxpayers money and expects to return more than $700,000 to the county this year. He also has downsized the office from 72 positions to 47.

Wells, who if re-elected plans to retire in four years, expects that trend to continue as technology improves.

"I have an employee retiring in December," he said. "We're going to figure out a way to get her work done by the employees who are left because we are not replacing her."

Wells also said he is meeting with County Administrator John Gallagher to discuss returning office space from the appraiser's location on Little Road.

"We don't need the space," he said.

Newlon said that while Wells has done a good job, more could be done to make the office more efficient.

She pledges to provide comparable annually assessed property values and property tax data, as well as a Save Our Homes portability calculator and online filing for tangible personal property returns.

She also wants to develop closer relationships with homeowners groups. Not only would that allow her to provide more community outreach to property owners who have questions, she said, but it would also raise awareness about homestead exemption fraud.

"They would know when a house is vacant but not changed over (to a non-homesteaded property). They'd know if it has been rented out over and over again."

She said she has no evidence that Wells' office has done anything incorrectly, but she wants to raise awareness of the issue and be able to flag violators faster.

"Maybe the general public doesn't really understand how important it is that exemptions are applied properly," she said. "When someone gets an illegal exemption, the other property owners make up for it."

Newlon said she has tried to maintain a positive campaign, though she did post a link to a WTSP-TV news video that aired the night before the Aug. 14 primary in which a reporter found Wells at home during the middle of a work day. The reporter said it was a regular occurrence.

Wells told the Tampa Bay Times he was ill with a headache and had taken prescription medicine that made it unsafe for him to drive, so he stayed at home. He pointed out that he requires that all purchases greater than $100 get his approval and he signs every check, so if he were unavailable the office wouldn't be able to function. He also speaks to community groups outside normal office hours.

"A constitutional officer's job doesn't come with a time clock," he said. "It's a 24-hour job."

Newlon said she put the video on her website but it makes her "uncomfortable." She said she didn't want to make it focus of her campaign.

"I didn't start that ball rolling," she said.

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Updated: 05/27/18