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New chairman riles county commissioner with assignment change

When county commissioners were asked to list their committee preferences after the Nov. 4 election, Michael Cox wrote down only one thing: He wanted to keep his current assignment on the Pasco Economic Development Council.

Instead, new chairman Jack Mariano put him on the Jobs and Education Partnership Board, reserving for himself the role of being county liaison to the Economic Development Council.

Now the reassignment is causing friction between the two commissioners.

"I hope you would reconsider," an obviously stung Cox tersely told Mariano at Tuesday's meeting. With investment giant T. Rowe Price still mulling whether to move its operations and thousands of jobs to Pasco County, Cox said replacing him now would be unwise.

Mariano said he would think about it and let Cox know if he "had a change of heart." He also remarked that he wanted to "take care" of small businesses.

Contacted after the meeting, Cox said he could think of little reason for the snub except that Mariano didn't like him.

"I don't think he cares for me," said Cox, who is in the middle of his first term. The commission's lone Democrat, Cox also blamed partisanship.

"I'm extremely disappointed that he's playing politics. It's sad that he's doing it with the future of the county," Cox said. "If he truly is interested in a harmonious board, I would certainly hope he would reconsider."

Mariano called Cox's allegations untrue.

"Partisanship had nothing to do with it," said Mariano, who was also pulled from the EDC one year and put on the Tourism Development Council. He stepped off the Tourism Council and gave that post to Commissioner Pat Mulieri.

"I went with it and made the most of it," he said.

Cox, 44, a financial planner with Morgan Stanley, said his background makes him "uniquely qualified" for the assignment. He also said he sat in on all meetings with bank officials and T. Rowe Price representatives and knows more about the deal than any other commissioner.

Cox also said that he was "very instrumental" in helping broker a $1.5-million deal to help lure a Sysco Food Services distribution center to Zephyrhills. (Sysco's plans are still on hold, and the county froze the money until the company firmed up its commitment.)

Besides, his office is in the same building as the EDC headquarters, making it very convenient for consultations.

"We're literally across the hall from each other," he said. "It's not uncommon for me to pop in and chat with people."

Cox speculated that a difference of opinion over an incentive package for an existing business might have also played a role in Mariano's decision.

Commissioners recently voted 3-2, with Mariano and Mulieri in the minority, to give Stainless Fabricators $30,000 in incentives to expand in Pasco. The company had initially sought $116,000 worth of incentives and Mariano wanted to grant the full amount.

But Cox said the result would be a net gain of only 10 jobs and that he couldn't support that much money for such a small return. Mariano took the position that if the company left for Hernando County, it would result in a loss of about 50 jobs.

Commissioners Ann Hildebrand and Ted Schrader sided with Cox.

Mariano said this week that while he wants companies like T. Rowe Price, he also wants to make sure existing businesses are rewarded for their loyalty. He also wants to ensure that the number of jobs being lost doesn't exceed the number gained.

Mariano, 48, pointed to his degree in economics from Framingham State University and said he is equally qualified to serve on the EDC.

Mariano said he tried to be fair when making assignments. He said Cox, who was also assigned to other committees, was given "lots of opportunities." He also wants to make use of Cox's expertise in finance to create a new committee charged with overseeing the county's investments.

"When you're chairman, you have to make tough decisions," he said.

Mary Jane Stanley, the EDC's chief executive officer, called Cox "extremely valuable" in assisting with the T. Rowe Price incentive package.

She said EDC members try to work closely with all the commissioners. Mariano, who has served previously on the EDC, will also be an asset, she said.

Last year's chairman Schrader, who kept Cox on the EDC, said he performed the job well.

"But it's the chairman's right to make appointments," he said.

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

New chairman riles county commissioner with assignment change 12/05/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 10:29pm]
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