NEW PORT RICHEY — Ann Hildebrand is running for her seventh term on the County Commission, but perhaps her most vulnerable issue this campaign is her "retirement" three years ago.
Hildebrand was revealed as one of the state's "double dippers" in a Times investigation this year. Using a loophole in state law, Hildebrand "retired" without having to leave office and is now collecting pension benefits on top of her salary.
Taxpayers give her a monthly retirement benefit of $2,778 and an annual salary of $80,000 as commissioner. She collected a $143,000 payment of deferred compensation in 2005 when she "retired."
Her challengers in the Aug. 26 Republican primary — Wil Nickerson and Matt Matey — lack her tenure, campaign war chest and public pulpit. But Nickerson has seized on Hildebrand's "double dipping" in a year in which voters might be in a foul mood about incumbents and government spending.
Hildebrand said she decided to take the deferred retirement option, or DROP, in 2000, when she said she was running for commission for the last time. The program was created in 1998 to encourage retirement of highly paid, senior employees to help advance younger, lower-paid employees. The retiring employees have to leave in five years, but get to collect a large sum in deferred benefits at that time.
But lawmakers amended a retirement bill in 2001, making a little-noticed change to allow elected officials to enter the deferred retirement program, then receive retirement benefits as well as regular pay while remaining in the same job.
In 2004, Hildebrand decided to run again for the board instead of the Legislature. In 2005, she "retired."
"I wish that it had never happened the way it was," Hildebrand told the Times recently. "If I had to do it over again, I never would have taken the DROP."
No one unscathed
But double dipping might be the only easy zinger for her opponents in a campaign rife with the usual debate on growth and spending issues.
A former social worker, Hildebrand, 70, is a full-time commissioner who also does volunteer work with nonprofits such as the United Way. Not only has her name become entrenched since her first election in 1984, she has raised nearly $89,700 for the election.
Nickerson, 62, a former insurance activist and real estate broker, has received $8,600. Matey, 54, an electrician who was laid off during the construction downturn, has raised $7,700.
Neither has escaped the campaign unscathed, though.
Matey was delinquent on $2,111 in his 2007 property taxes until he paid Aug. 1, blaming it on miscues by his mortgage company.
Tipped off by Hildebrand, Pasco's consumer affairs office looked into Nickerson's handyman work in June and concluded he was doing contracting work without a license. In response, Nickerson stopped doing the work.
But the challengers cast their campaigns as down-to-earth attempts to help the county in tough times. Nickerson fought high insurance rates, and Matey lost work after the housing downturn hit.
Matey, a 1976 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, said Pasco needs to focus on increasing job opportunities within the county. He worries his grandchildren won't want to live here as adults.
His solution: bolstering neighborhoods by improving local crime watch programs and stepping up code enforcement. With county spending tight, Matey advocates combining building inspectors and code enforcement inspectors to improve efficiency. He also wants stricter penalties, including higher fines, for violations.
"We must offer means by which our children and grandchildren can become gainfully employed, buy their homes here and raise their children here," Matey said.
Despite tight county finances, Matey is against reducing hours for parks and libraries, part of the cuts commissioners made as property tax revenues shrank. He said those cuts deter learning and family togetherness.
But Matey's solution is to freeze any environmental lands purchases using Penny for Pasco sales tax money.
That would free up millions of dollars, but it would violate the pact officials made with voters about how the extra sales tax would be used.
Nickerson also wants to build Pasco's job base, but has campaigned more prominently on being "a watchdog for frivolous, excessive and wasteful spending." He chides the board's oversight of spending; budgets grew to $1.2-billion from $470-million over the past eight years.
To save money, he advocates trimming the use and numbers of county vehicles, but cannot say how much this would save until he studies the issue more. He also said some parks and libraries should stay open, but would allow for less-used sites to shut down earlier.
Nickerson also faults the commission for allowing growth to outpace Pasco's roads — even while he says the permitting system for developers and businesses is too cumbersome. A consultant recently chided Pasco for a difficult permitting system, too.
But Hildebrand says her record over the same time justifies another four years in office. She said the county needs to focus first on improving transportation using last year's impact fees and new growth plan, particularly during a lull that allows the county to catch up.
She said her role serving on the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority can help Pasco improve roads, too.
She also said the county should follow through on improving services like permitting based on the recommendations in the consultant's report. The same efforts could save money during the slowdown.
"You can always do a better job," she said, "and it's an opportunity."
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.