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Challenger draws support from developers in Pasco County Commission race

NEW PORT RICHEY — As Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano gears up his re-election effort before the August primary, several members of the politically connected development community have lined up behind his opponent, New Port Richey minister Bill Gunter.

A former Florida Gator making his first run at public office, Gunter is poised to release his first fundraising report since he started campaigning a month ago. It will be north of $16,000, including $3,000 of his own money.

"I think I'm the candidate that's bringing a new perspective to the County Commission," Gunter said. "There's a lot of frustration out there in the business community and the citizens themselves. Some of the frustration directed at my opponent is part of that."

Many developers say the incumbent is unpredictable on issues they care about, with last year's effort to lower impact fees as a notable example.

Mariano said he's proud of his record to shed Pasco's image as a bedroom community. He touted the innovative mobility fee that encourages office and industrial growth in urban areas of the county. He also touted his vote to approve the Shops at Wiregrass and his support of a Kickin' Wing restaurant that redeveloped a run-down car dealership on State Road 52.

"Money doesn't win races," Mariano said. "It's ideas, it's performance. Certain groups are going to get mad. It is what it is. I didn't get in here to just woo anybody other than work for the voters."

Because the winner of the Aug. 14 primary will not face opposition in the general election, all county voters can vote in the primary.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he is not endorsing in the District 5 race. But he had kind words for Gunter.

"If Bill Gunter was elected, he would be an outstanding county commissioner," he said. "The voters of Pasco could not go wrong if they cast their vote for Bill Gunter."

Early in the campaign, Odessa developer Trey Starkey sent an email to several members of the Pasco business community, saying Gunter is a good choice for the commission. Starkey, whose wife, Kathryn Starkey, is a candidate in the District 3 race, declined to discuss the email and said he is focused on his wife's campaign.

"I'm not going to comment on emails that I send out to personal friends on a personal basis," he said.

It's not surprising that Starkey would be cool to Mariano. The commissioner was a chief critic of the Sportsplex softball complex that was to be located at the Starkey Ranch before the deal was scuttled last year. Earlier this year, commissioners agreed to use $11.5 million in hotel taxes and $2.5 million in sales taxes to help build a different sports complex in Wesley Chapel's Wiregrass development.

Mariano voted for that deal, but he also angered the Porter family that owns Wiregrass. Before commissioners pledged the tax money, Mariano asked Tom Dempsey, owner of nearby Saddlebrook Resort, to submit a competing offer at the last minute. At the time, Mariano said Saddlebrook offered a premium location and the Wiregrass plan had too many obstacles.

J.D. Porter, who has been negotiating the fine points of the park deal with county officials, called some of Mariano's actions "obstreperous," or unruly.

"Maybe they aren't necessarily voting for Bill, but they're voting against Jack," he said of Gunter's support in the business community. "You can only be the bad guy so long."

Mariano said Porter is trying to use the park agreement to relax transportation requirements on his surrounding residential development. "Let the project stand on its own," Mariano said. "If it doesn't work for him, then why should he do it?"

But for many developers, the issue of impact fees is Mariano's biggest flaw.

Mariano was the primary supporter last year to slash the fees, which are charged to new development to help pay for infrastructure like roads, schools and parks.

But home builders and developers are still smarting from a vote in April 2011, when the commission considered halving the $4,800-per-home fee designated for schools for two years. Commissioners were under intense pressure from the Pasco County School District to keep the fee intact. On the afternoon of the vote, Mariano made a forceful speech why the cut made economic sense.

After dozens of residents spoke against the move, Mariano voted no. His explanation at the time: "Numerically I think it works, but emotionally I don't think it's the best thing to do." The proposal failed 3-2. Onlookers in the jam-packed board room were stunned.

New Port Richey developer Alex Deeb didn't go to that meeting. He didn't think he had to, assuming Mariano was a staunch ally.

"Why would you lead the charge and then cave at the last minute?" he said. "That just doesn't make any sense. Either you believe in something or you don't believe in something."

Mariano is proud of that vote. He decided the proposal would be a blow to the School District's morale after listening to the procession of speakers.

"I looked at the whole situation, the pouring out of the parents, the teachers and the students," he said Friday. "They just felt they were being attacked from every single angle."

Mariano said temporarily lowering the school fee is a much smaller issue compared with the mobility fee, which has attracted attention from planners across Florida. "We are looked at in a whole different way," he said.

Before Gunter got in the race about a month ago, Deeb contributed to Mariano's campaign. He said he doesn't know enough about Gunter to be a major supporter, but he gave to him as well.

The impact fee vote didn't turn all developers against Mariano.

Lew Friedland, president of a Trinity development company, was a vocal supporter of the cuts. His business gave Mariano's campaign $500 in March.

"In general, Jack has probably been a pretty good county commissioner," Friedland said. "Every once in a while you fall off the wagon."

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

Challenger draws support from developers in Pasco County Commission race 07/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 7, 2012 1:40pm]
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