Monday, May 21, 2018
Politics

Wells fighting for final term as Pasco property appraiser

His 16 years as property appraiser have been trouble free.

County commissioners, congressional representatives and real estate agents gush with praise for Mike Wells, whose heap of endorsements have grown about the same rate as property values have been dropping in recent years.

"He's right on the money," said County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who serves on the county's Value Adjustment Board, the group that hears appeals from property owners who dispute the appraiser's numbers. "You can't argue with the numbers. He's done a fine job."

Yet this time, Wells, 65, is fighting for another term, which he says will be his last.

"I've enjoyed getting out and meeting with community groups," said Wells, who is facing his first opposition since taking office. He says he stands on his record of accurate assessments and integrity.

"We know who the real farmers are," he said, referring to property owners who request agricultural exemptions.

Walter Price Jr., a 30-year-old private appraiser from Land O'Lakes, will take on Wells in the Aug. 14 Republican primary. The winner then faces Democrat Allison Newlon, a real estate agent from San Antonio, in the general election. The property appraiser serves a four-year term and will earn $137,796 a year.

Price said he has met with hundreds of groups in the past year and has received favorable reviews.

"The key is getting to the average citizen," he said. The political elite, he said, make up "only about a thousand" voters. He is unfazed by Wells' rock star status.

In the end, he said, it'll boil down to whomever works the hardest. "I can win because I outwork the other guy," he said.

• • •

Price grew up in Tavares, often visiting his grandparents in Pasco. A graduate of Tavares High School, he was member of the swimming and baseball teams. While attending the University of South Florida in 2000, he and a friend painted their bodies and moved through the crowds during football and basketball games.

"We were the original 'Green and Gold guys,' " Price said. "The school didn't have many traditions, so we made one. Now about 40 to 50 people paint themselves each game."

Price graduated in 2004 with a degree in communications. He became a private property appraiser like his dad, Walter Price Sr.

"He got his ability to stand his ground from his mother," said the elder Price, who is also running for property appraiser in Lake County against two other candidates. "He got his work ethic from me."

The younger Price says his seven years as a certified appraiser make him the best candidate for the job in Pasco. He said he knows how to set market values during rapidly changing market conditions. He also wants to upgrade technology and look into giving employees iPads instead of heavy laptops to use out in the field.

"I can do an entire PowerPoint presentation using my cellphone," he said.

He knows his odds appear to be long, but he's optimistic. He says his website has recorded 7,300 hits.

"Some people have told me that they have to publicly support (Wells)," he said. "But you never know what people will do when they're alone in the voting booth."

• • •

Wells' history in Pasco County runs deep. A former Army drill sergeant from Pinellas, he attended St. Petersburg Junior College and USF, but dropped out his junior year to help support his first son.

He was once known as a brash, young Republican when he served as a county commissioner in the mid 1980s. He pushed for a bond issue that paid for the county's parks and library system.

"When his kids were little and they were doing Little League, they'd have to mow the lawn themselves and keep the car headlights on at night to play," recalled Hildebrand, who was elected the same year as Wells.

Wells also was part of the board that enacted the first impact fee, a decision that was controversial at the time.

"I had builders crying in the lobby that they'd go out of business," he said. Wells said the same builders told him years later that it was a good decision. Without the infrastructure to support the quality of life, he said, "they'd have gone out of business."

Wells left the commission after two terms. Four years later, in 1996, he ran for property appraiser when longtime incumbent Ted Williams retired.

During his tenure, he's been known to stand up to corporations that routinely protested their property values. He was the last appraiser left standing when Walmart opposed its property values. The discount giant eventually backed off.

"I'll adjust values, but you have to show me evidence," he said. "Walmart gave no reason for me to settle."

Wells disputes Price's claim that he's been behind on technology.

He said his staff has been using laptops for more than 10 years. The information then gets uploaded back at the office. Could that be improved? Probably, said Wells, who recently announced a process to apply for homestead exemptions online and this week rolled out an application to let people get data at a glance from their smartphones or iPads.

"There has to be a good return on investment," he said. "Having technology because it's neat doesn't make sense."

One fan of Wells' website is Greg Armstrong, past president of the West Pasco Board of Realtors.

"When I do a closing in Hillsborough, I have to go to one site to see the property, one site to see taxes and make a phone call to see if there are open permits," he said. "When we go around the state of Florida, the Realtors in other counties are jealous over what we have" in Pasco, he said.

To illustrate his frugality, Wells recalled how a staffer was using a phone book to fill a hole in the seat of a fleet car. Rather than ditch the car, Wells had crews move the passenger seat to the driver's side to keep the car on the road.

"We did that, and he was happy," he said.

He called all the endorsements, which range from U.S. Rep Gus Bilirakis to House Speaker Will Weatherford to state Sen. Mike Fasano to Hildebrand, "flattering" and is confident voters will concur.

"I'm not ready to quit," Wells said. "Four years from now, it'll be time for me to get out of the way."

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