NEW PORT RICHEY — In a series of debates featuring sharp distinctions and subtle attacks, nine candidates vying for three seats on the Pasco County commission made their pitch Tuesday night to voters.
The debates, sponsored by the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce at Pasco-Hernando Community College's west campus, come a month before the Aug. 14 primary election. That election will determine the commissioner for District 1 and 5, and voters of all parties can cast ballots in those contests. In District 3, the winner of a five-person GOP primary will face Democrat Matt Murphy in November.
District 1: Perhaps the most lively exchange came at the tail end of the east Pasco District 1 debate when candidate Rachel O'Connor called her opponents part of the "good old boy" system.
She charged that Commissioner Ted Schrader "has for 12 years served for his businesses," and also raised taxes. And she wondered why Zephyrhills citrus grower Ron Oakley invested so much personal cash into his campaign. "Why would a businessman invest like that? He's expecting a big return," she said.
Her speech brought rebukes from both men. Oakley said: "There is no personal gain for me in this, other than the gratitude of being able to do something right for the people of this county." Schrader was more direct: "Ms. O'Connor needs to check her facts." He said the county's property tax rate dropped 30 percent since he took office in 2000.
The rest of the debate was less incendiary. Schrader said he was "intimately involved" in recent incentive packages to lure T. Rowe Price and Raymond James Financial to Pasco. O'Connor said commissioners should have tried to diversify the county economy "a long time ago."
Both challengers criticized the new fees for parking and youth sports leagues at 11 county parks. O'Connor called them a "double tax," and Oakley said they are "ridiculous." Schrader defended his vote for the fees, saying they prevent higher taxes or park closings. He rattled off a series of new court-related fees that have not sparked a public outcry.
"We are trying to operate Pasco County as a business," he said. "That's exactly what a business does. They assess fees for services that are rendered."
District 5: There were also several subtle jabs in the two-man contest for the west Pasco District 5 seat. Commissioner Jack Mariano touted his economic development work and questioned whether his opponent, New Port Richey minister Bill Gunter, has enough experience for the job.
One moderator asked Gunter where he would find the money to increase salaries for first responders, one of the Gunter's campaign goals.
"I would have to say I am not exactly sure," Gunter said, reiterating his support for firefighters and sheriff's deputies. Mariano pounced: "This is a very important position. To not exactly have an answer I think is inexcusable."
Gunter said he supports renewing the Penny for Pasco sales tax, and "can't wait to see what the plan is" for how the revenue would be spent. Mariano said the plan has been public for about a month: "The details are out there."
The two men also diverged on the park fees. Gunter said most people don't mind them, while Mariano has been a strident critic since they were passed in 2010. Gunter said, "Jack continually brings it up, fights with the other commissioners on this issue." When he noted that his opponent voted against the entire budget last year because of the park fees, Mariano nodded.
Gunter also got in a few swings. In speaking with developers and other business owners, he said, "they no longer have a trust factor in their county government, or in this particular case, in a county commissioner. … Your yes has to be yes, and your no has to be no."
Then the topic came to SunWest Harbourtowne, the future mega development in Aripeka with an associated deepwater channel to the gulf. Mariano has been a major supporter, working on the details of securing an environmental permit for the channel.
"A lot of people wonder, why such a fixation there?" Gunter said. "It seems to go beyond just the work of the county commission as a whole. You're not just a county commissioner, you're working with four other people."
Mariano said he has no problems being called a cheerleader for the project: "I think it's going to be one of the greatest things to hit this county," he said.
District 3: The debate in the open District 3 race was much more low key, with candidates sticking to issues and largely avoiding criticisms of their opponents. They also agreed on several issues, including supporting the Penny for Pasco renewal and calling for a national search if County Administrator John Gallagher retires during their term.
Like other races, the hopefuls diverged on park fees. Retired Coast Guard special agent Randy Evans said he is "adamantly opposed" to the fees, and environmental contractor Josh Griffin agreed. Hotel sales director Karen King said that in talks with voters, she found only a few who opposed the fees.
Former School Board member Kathryn Starkey said she doesn't like the fees put prefers them to closing parks.
"It's easy to say that the money (to offset the fees) is hidden (in the budget)," she said. "Having served on the School Board … now what we talk about is cutting jobs and cutting service."
King touted her work on the Tourism Development Council. "What I would bring to the commission is a wealth of knowledge about this community," she said. Griffin stressed his work for his family's environmental contracting company. He also diverged from his opponents to oppose the new "mobility fee" that charges lower transportation fees in urban areas to encourage growth there.
The only real attacks came when Evans criticized Starkey, who leads the pack in fundraising and has a pair of big-name endorsements. Evans pledged not to resign from the commission early to run for a higher office, a reference to Starkey's unsuccessful run in 2010 for the state House after she left the School Board.
Evans lamented the "shell game" of candidates who move into the district to fulfill the residency requirement. He also criticized other candidates for "sitting in the air conditioning and writing a check for nearly $5,000," instead of collecting the required 3,000 petitions to make the ballot.
Starkey is one of three candidates in the primary who until recently lived outside the district, and she is one of two who paid the qualifying fee.
A fifth candidate, Chris Gregg of New Port Richey, did not attend the debate.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.