Sunday, June 24, 2018
News Roundup

Tallahassee political committee takes aim at Mariano

The flier is ripped from the headlines. "Pasco commissioners agree to higher property tax rates," it reads, under a Tampa Bay Times masthead.

Then, in even bigger type next to a picture of Commissioner Jack Mariano, it reads: "He did WHAT?!!" The mailer says Mariano "raised our taxes and turned his back on us. How can we ever trust him again?" The attacks are worse on the back, saying he "did what liberals do" and that he made a choice "that would make Barack Obama proud."

In tiny type, the mailer says it was paid for by a group called Nature Coast Conservatives, which has a Tallahassee address. What the mail piece really shows is that well-funded state power brokers are taking an interest in one of Pasco's commission races.

"I expected something negative to be coming from somewhere," said Mariano, a Republican seeking his third term on the commission. "I didn't really expect it to be coming from outside this county."

So who are these Nature Coast Conservatives, anyway? It's a Tallahassee campaign committee linked to the political consulting firm Southern Campaign Resources, owned by Rockie Pennington. The group's chairman is Mark Zubaly, who works with Pennington. Why does he care so much about Pasco politics?

"It was drawn to our attention by several folks in the area," Zubaly said. "All I was given was a newspaper article."

The group has a relatively thin campaign finance record. This year, it took $70,000 from a North Florida barrel racing facility that wants to add slot machines and $10,000 from a committee controlled by state Sen. Charlie Dean of Inverness. The group refunded half the gambling money and Dean denied involvement. Zubaly said that because the mailer went out last week, the funding source might not be on the latest campaign report that listed every transaction through July 6.

The group also has given to and accepted money from the Committee to Protect Florida. That committee is also run by Pennington's firm, and is used by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity. Pennington also does consulting work for several other Pasco candidates, including state Sen. Mike Fasano, Sheriff Chris Nocco and commission hopefuls Bill Gunter and Ron Oakley.

So, who paid for the mailer?

"You've surprised me, first there was a hit piece and that it wasn't by his opponent," Fasano said. "I don't know who it would be."

Corcoran said he's heard about the mailer but hadn't seen it. He said he didn't want to speculate about who is behind it.

Gunter, Mariano's opponent in the Aug. 14 race, said he hadn't seen the ad. "I'll have to track that down and take a look at it," he said.

He added: "There are a lot of people out there that want to see a change in this seat."

But what about the substance of the attack? Is it fair to say Mariano — and the other four commissioners — raised taxes?

The mailer quotes a June 5 Times story that described the proposed "roll back" property tax rate, which is higher than the current rate. But it left off the article's next sentence: "The rate is designed to collect roughly the same amount of taxes as the current year."

So, the tax rate is higher, but property values dropped by nearly 6 percent. Property owners — on average — would pay the same in taxes as the year before. Whether individual property owners pay higher taxes, though, depends on their specific situation.

Gunter acknowledged the nuance that can sometimes surround property taxes. He said, "That, to me, is certainly not a tax decrease."

Said Mariano: "It's a distortion. I think it's a very inaccurate portrayal of what's going on."

Mariano is working on a rebuttal mail piece that will describe his record on taxes. From 2005-07 (while values were going up) Mariano and his fellow commissioners cut the tax rate. The board kept the rate level in 2008, while values dropped. When values dropped again in 2009, commissioners voted for the "roll back" rate. They kept the same rate in 2010 and 2011.

This year, commissioners said their hand was forced by a new Medicaid billing law passed by the state Legislature. Pasco's tab: $4.2 million.

Mariano also cited his role to squelch a proposed $50-per-home fee and a gas tax increase to subsidize the county's new mobility fees. Neither of those passed.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

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