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Hillsborough County Commission race focuses on jobs, economy

TAMPA — Unemployment, government bailouts and deficit spending may be dominating the national political debate.

But the economy is also front and center in one of the more hard-fought races for a Hillsborough County Commission seat.

Current Commissioner Ken Hagan, a Republican, is trying to leap from his District 2 seat representing northern Hillsborough to the at-large District 5 post. He's doing so in part by touting his record on jobs, including a ballot initiative he sponsored that would rebate property taxes for up to 10 years for new or expanding businesses.

He faces Democrat Linda Saul-Sena, a former Tampa City Council member. She is the sole supporter in the race of a transit referendum that, if approved, includes new light rail that she says will create jobs immediately and invite new investment in urban areas.

Dogging both of them is independent Jim Hosler, a former planner. He says Hagan's ballot proposal will hurt existing small businesses, which he supports, and that the rail plan is doomed to failure.

If Hosler has attracted attention, it has been for his outspoken criticism of the rail initiative. Still, he said his real concern is for the economy and small business owners.

On that front, "The reason I picked this race is it has the two weakest candidates," Hosler said.

Saul-Sena and Hagan have waged a bruising battle in recent weeks, accusing each other of a variety of misdeeds tangentially tied to the economy and government spending. Saul-Sena has accused Hagan of missing meetings of government agencies' committees dealing with transportation, employment and affordable housing that are part of his commission duties.

Hagan has acknowledged his spotty attendance, blaming it on family obligations, while noting he has a near perfect record of showing up for actual commission meetings that count the most. He has accused Saul-Sena of nearly jeopardizing the opening of an Ikea furniture store, with its 300 jobs, over petty concerns about a design that she believed was generic and a bad fit for its Ybor City surroundings.

Hagan, 43, has spent eight years on the commission, his early time devoted to small-ticket items of concern to his district, such as parks, libraries and fire stations. More recently, he has tackled broader issues, including forming an economic development task force looking for ways to rethink job creation.

Results are still a work in progress, but he said it has led to lowering the threshold for companies seeking tax incentives from having to create at least 50 jobs to 10. Economic development officials are also preparing for an analysis of Hillsborough's strengths, weaknesses and opportunities on the job-creation front.

"Honestly I think, going back several years, the economy and job creation has been a priority of mine," Hagan said. "From what I can, tell that's never been a concern of Ms. Saul-Sena's. She talks more about the environment and historic preservation."

Those have been top concerns of Saul-Sena, 59, who served 20 years on the Tampa City Council. She argues they are important because they contribute to Hillsborough's quality of life and sense of place, which are important for luring businesses.

She said the 1-cent sales tax proposal on the ballot, with its rail component, will further add to the quality of life by promoting a vibrant city center. It will redirect development to urban areas where roads and sewer lines can accommodate it, and away from rural areas that can't and where many residents don't want it.

"I've been promoting the concept of an active, healthy, lively center for more than 30 years," Saul-Sena said. "To me, investing in our transportation will define our economy in the future."

She's also been a vocal proponent of green construction, which she said was also lacking in the Ikea building.

Hosler, 58, spent 18 years with the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, chiefly as a demographer, though he did work on localized community plans. He had state jobs before that, principally promoting small business development.

Therein lies his passion, which also forms his beliefs that Hagan and Saul-Sena's economic agendas are flawed.

Hagan frequently cites a prospective Bass Pro Shops as a likely early beneficiary of his proposed property tax incentive, noting the outfitter draws shoppers from around the region. But Hosler questions why Hillsborough would court a national chain store that will compete with existing, locally owned stores that won't get the tax break.

He says the sales tax increase backed by Saul-Sena will hurt small-business owners as well and new trains will do little to help them.

Hosler argues that economic recovery should be built on small businesses. The county needs to streamline and make development rules for them more predictable and develop innovative assistance for them, he says.

He has devoted a page to the topic on his campaign website, www.hoslerforhillsborough.com.

"Hillsborough County's recovery from the great recession will be led by a revival in its small business sector," it starts. "The great majority of our job growth has always come from small businesses."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough County Commission race focuses on jobs, economy 10/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 30, 2010 11:25pm]

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