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Public swayed him against Pasco schools impact fee cuts, Commissioner Mariano says

After convincing his fellow county commissioners that cutting impact fees on new development would help revive Pasco's economy, Jack Mariano was one vote away from enacting the final cut. He would have the deciding vote.

On Tuesday, after two months of spirited public debate, a shocked audience watched Mariano spike his own proposal.

"I'll tell you, it blew me over with a feather," said Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "He really brought this to the board. He made the presentation, and it was a passionate presentation."

But as commissioners were about to vote, she said, "he started backpedaling on it."

Observers say Mariano bowed to a public backlash against cutting the impact fee for schools. Teachers and school officials spent weeks bemoaning the cuts as more heartache piled on a bleak schools budget that will likely include layoffs.

"Teachers are frustrated, and I don't blame them," said state Rep. Will Weatherford, citing looming cuts to education in a strapped state budget. "I can understand why they felt like it was piling on."

The Wesley Chapel Republican counseled Mariano against cutting the school fee during a half-hour discussion shortly before Tuesday's meeting. Weatherford supports lowering impact fees, but would wait until there aren't so many vacant homes on the market.

"With the dollars stretched the way they are, the challenges we have in Tallahassee, I just don't think it's the best time," Weatherford said. "Sometimes timing is important."

Mariano said he was leaning in favor of the cut for the first half of Tuesday's meeting and during a detailed presentation he gave in support of the lower fees. He said he started to change his mind as dozens of residents spoke against the proposal.

Commissioners took a 10-minute break before the vote, and he thought about how he would explain his shift. He still believed in the policy, but realized it didn't have buy-in from the public.

"I gathered as much info as I could right till the end," he said. "I was just taking it all in every step of the way."

The next day, he received more than 100 e-mails, nearly all supportive. People thanked him for keeping faith in education and not giving up on the kids. A civics teacher said the meeting would spark a lively class discussion.

"It's overwhelming support that it was the right call," Mariano said.

• • •

For the first several weeks, the debate went swimmingly for Mariano and developers. Commissioners slashed impact fees for roads, parks and libraries, slicing $6,200 from the $16,900 levied on an average new home. Those cuts came from county coffers, and officials devised a way to soften the blow with new way to pay for roads.

The last proposal was to halve the $4,800-per-home school fee until 2013. That fight pitted two titans of Pasco's economy: home builders, the county's biggest industry, and the school district, Pasco's largest single employer. Commissioners had to pick a winner.

The fight turned ugly days before the vote, as developer Jim Deitch e-mailed schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino, suggesting she "strike a deal" on the cuts. Otherwise, he wrote, "all gloves are off" and developers would expose what he called illegal accounting practices.

Commissioner Ted Schrader, who earlier supported the cuts, cited messages like that as turning him against the plan.

The school community showered praise on Mariano after the vote, but the politically influential developers were none too happy.

"I think he's in a no-win position," said former commissioner Michael Cox. "He was the one leading the charge for the developers and the builders. And then he flip-flopped on them."

Many in the building industry blamed the reversal on "misinformation" from school officials that lost capital money could mean lost jobs for teachers. They smarted about preliminary meetings where school officials agreed to a 50 percent cut to keep the fee from being totally wiped out.

"I can share the disappointment that they probably see," Mariano said. "For it to change just like that, I'm fully understanding of how they would react strongly and say, 'What the hell is he doing?' "

He added: "I hope they look at where we were two, 21/2 months ago. We had impact fees that were over 16 grand, completely un-competitive. We are now in a much better position long term."

• • •

A cynic might argue Mariano cast his vote with visions of angry teachers rallying against his re-election bid next fall. The three commissioners who voted against the cuts — Mariano, Hildebrand and Schrader — all face the voters next fall.

"Wow, that is cynical," Mariano said. "I didn't even think of that. I hadn't even put that thought together."

Commissioners got a taste of the potential political fallout over the past two weeks, as the education community mobilized against the plan. A unanimous School Board opposed the move. Teachers filled public meetings, directing pointed questions at Mariano.

The United School Employees of Pasco organized the heavy lobbying effort, including a barrage of e-mails and a 100-person rally the day before the vote. The union also brought in organizers from as far away as North Dakota and Washington state to work the impact fee issue and help with other legislative matters.

But union president Lynne Webb didn't see Mariano's reversal in the context of next fall's election.

"That's still a long way away, and public memory isn't that long," she said. "I got the sense that he really wanted to represent the community. They weren't convinced by his arguments that this was a good thing."

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

Public swayed him against Pasco schools impact fee cuts, Commissioner Mariano says 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 11:59am]
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