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Pasco tax collector candidates trade jabs at latest debate

They shook hands. They smiled. They cracked jokes.

At Monday night's political forum, Tax Collector Mike Olson and challenger Ed Blommel were so jovial they could have been co-stars of a buddy movie.

They politely touched on a few policy differences, but presented themselves similarly. Local high school graduates. Happy marriages, great kids. Hometown boys who rose to the executive ranks in their respective careers.

At a second forum two days later, they were trading jabs and pointing out stark differences in their approaches to running the constitutional office that handles property taxes, fees for business licenses, hunting and fishing licenses and driving tests.

"He doesn't understand the job at all," said Olson, 67, who called his opponent a "hypocrite" for spending 40 years at Tampa Electric Co. while telling voters that Olson had overstayed his welcome after 32 years in office. He also questioned the motivation of 63-year-old Blommel, who retired several years ago and who earlier said running for office was on his "bucket list."

"It's about public service," said Olson. "It's not about looking for something to do because you're tired of playing golf."

Blommel, who countered that he wasn't good at golf, took his own shots, calling the office atmosphere "sterile" and likening it to dealing with an ATM.

"I know a little bit about the job," Blommel said. "I've used the office in the past."

He then took an indirect dig at Olson's management style, which some have called abrasive.

"I understand people," he said, adding that he plans to interview each employee and use private sector programs to build morale if voters choose him in the Nov. 6 election.

Olson, who admitted to being heavy handed when he first took office more than three decades ago, said he learned to delegate and pointed out that comment cards from the public are 99 percent positive.

The chief difference between the two involve how to serve the county as it grows.

Olson advocates building two county-owned regional supercenters, one-stop shops that would handle all services and include closed courses for driver's license road tests.

He says it has worked well in other counties and cites Orange as an example.

"A parking lot is not the ideal place to do driver's license tests," he said. "There have been over 30 accidents in the parking lot in the Land O'Lakes office."

Blommel disagrees. He says building new offices would force taxpayers to spend more money, keep more land off the tax rolls and force the county to spend more on maintenance costs, then leave commissioners with an albatross to get rid of when the building becomes outdated.

"It does not pay off," he said. "We need to find a way to finance new solutions."

Instead, Blommel would rely on leased storefront offices. It would keep the county more nimble, he said, in the face of a shaky economy and rapidly changing technology.

"Look at all the things you can do with a cellphone," Blommel said.

Olson called Blommel's answer "lame" and said "there's no way anyone's going to be able to give a driver's license exam over a phone."

Olson said he's gone the storefront route, and it didn't work.

"The way to go for safety reasons, liability reasons and cost involved is regional centers," he said. "They're more cost-effective." He pointed out that he has returned $70 million to county coffers during his years at the helm, and that should assure voters that he's frugal.

Blommel touted his private sector experience and "fresh set of eyes" as making him the best candidate. He also dropped a few names of fellow Republicans who support him, including Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

However, he down played the $20,000 contribution of the local Republican Party, saying it should be about who can do the best job.

Olson, the county's lone Democrat in office and former bank vice president, said he is that person.

"I'm the one that came from private enterprise," he said. "I ran a bank for Pete's sake. I'm one that brought private sector to the tax collector's office."

Pasco tax collector candidates trade jabs at latest debate 10/12/12 [Last modified: Friday, October 12, 2012 8:31pm]
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