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County Commission challenger accused incumbent of "triple dipping''

NEW PORT RICHEY — Overshadowed in fundraising and name recognition, Democrat Terri Conroy has taken an unusual tack in her campaign to oust Republican Ann Hildebrand from the Pasco County Commission.

Conroy's criticism: Hildebrand, 70, receives Social Security.

Given that Hildebrand receives that check in addition to her commission pay and a pension, a Conroy flier says, "It's time to END the triple dipping of taxpayers' money!"

That Conroy chose to lob that charge in a place known for senior voters on Social Security illustrates how difficult it has been to run against the six-term incumbent.

With 24 years in office and ties to many social service agencies like the United Way, Hildebrand has built a network of supporters over decades. Hildebrand, of New Port Richey, said her experience gives her insight into the needs of the community to guide Pasco through tight budgets and the down economy.

Not to mention campaign contributions of nearly $112,000, which is 14 times what Conroy has raised for the countywide race for the District 3 seat in west Pasco.

GOP officials consider her as safe as any Republican seeking election in Pasco.

"She's out of touch," Conroy countered.

Conroy, who lost her job as permitting manager with Lexington Homes in December when the housing boom went bust, presents a contrast to Hildebrand. Conroy, 49, of New Port Richey is a single mother of two. Unlike her millionaire opponent, Conroy reported her net worth at $23,177.

She had to pay $826 in delinquent property taxes in July, and said she was getting by on $550 in unemployment compensation every two weeks.

A newcomer to politics, Conroy said her employment loss gives her a perspective on how the county should be improved to help average residents.

For example, she said the county's development review and permitting offices should be reorganized to treat businesses better. She cites a recent Urban Land Institute report that called for restructured planning to suggest the approval process for development is a tangled mess.

The county also needs to plan better for development and roads, she said.

"They found a lot of improvements that need to be made in our county. … It seems like too many times, we jump after the fact," Conroy said.

And, she notes, Hildebrand has been on the commission for 24 years as the problems developed. But Hildebrand said that report came at the board's request as a set of extra eyes. And not all of it was bad news.

"While some like to be critical, I will tell you they were extremely impressed with the new development that is occurring on the (State Road) 54 corridor. ... We've got planned communities," Hildebrand said.

But Conroy's sharpest criticism of Hildebrand has come over the commissioner's finances. Hildebrand has withstood attacks over her decision to take retirement pay while still receiving regular paychecks for being on the commission.

However, Social Security, which people accrue based on pay and age, is distinct from other taxes that pay for government services.

"It's not that it's fair — it's true," Conroy said.

Hildebrand is among thousands of government employees statewide who took a deferred "retirement" option. She signed up for the option in 2000, and "retired" in 2005, receiving a $143,000 retirement payout. But she remained in office, drawing a salary even as she collected pension checks. That produced an $80,000 salary and almost $34,000 in pension pay last year.

She had received Social Security before entering the retirement program, though. She had been a social worker and lived in Pasco 13 years before first winning office in 1984.

Hildebrand said this summer she regrets the retirement pay decision, but this week declined to volley back at Conroy.

"I don't get into that," Hildebrand said, adding she would stay "positive."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.

County Commission challenger accused incumbent of "triple dipping'' 10/23/08 [Last modified: Sunday, October 26, 2008 1:01pm]
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