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Pasco County Commission hopefuls spar over tax stands

In mailing after mailing, to audience after audience, County Commissioner Ted Schrader touts his record of property tax cuts.

A rate cut every year for seven years — more than a 37 percent reduction since he took office.

"Every year I've been on the commission, we've lowered the millage, or it's remained the same (for 2009)," he told a recent crowd.

However, it's not proof that Schrader universally supports tax cuts — quite the contrary.

His opponent in Tuesday's election, Tampa firefighter and Darby rancher John Nicolette, has seized on the times that Schrader opposed cuts or supported raising other taxes — as well as the bulging annual budget increases that happened on his watch.

"Ted Schrader. A story of tax and spending," says a recent Nicolette mailer to voters, a pitch that Schrader says "bends the truth."

Nicolette also has a few holes in his record on taxes. He has thrashed at Schrader's support for the Penny for Pasco. Asked this month if he voted for it, Nicolette told the Times, "Oh no, I didn't."

Indeed: Nicolette failed to vote in the March 2004 referendum on the one-cent tax increase.

What voters make Tuesday of these tax stances will determine who's the next commissioner in east Pasco's District 1. The primary is limited to Republican voters; the winner faces token opposition in the November election from a write-in candidate who is a Nicolette ally.

Schrader's record

Nicolette is spot-on about these parts of Schrader's record:

• Schrader criticized an additional $25,000 property tax exemption for low-income seniors in 2004 and again in 2007. The board didn't add it.

• Schrader criticized the constitutional amendment reducing property taxes that voters approved in January, and said he voted against it. He also backed a letter to top state officials opposing legislative action to lower property tax rates.

• He helped put the Penny for Pasco on the ballot in 2004. Voters approved the one-cent-on-the-dollar hike to pay for road projects, school improvements and other items.

• He voted in 2002 to raise the gas tax by two cents a gallon. But when that proposal failed, he voted against a one-cent hike because he doubted it would raise enough money for roads in his east Pasco district.

"The decisions you make can come back to put people into hardships. Right now, we have tremendous hardships with the price of fuel," Nicolette said recently, noting "you have to be fiscally responsible."

Less conspicuously, Nicolette also has portrayed Schrader as out of touch by criticizing Schrader's surfing of the Internet during public meetings, as a Times' investigation revealed in 2006. Among three board members using the Internet for personal use during meetings, Schrader by far surfed the most.

"I accepted the fact it was a mistake. I accepted the fact that … it wasn't appropriate. … It hasn't happened again," Schrader said.

On taxes, Schrader said the board struggled to get a firm fix on the actual revenue cuts if senior-oriented tax cuts were passed. Even then, he said he worried about singling out a narrow group, favoring broader tax relief.

Schrader said there are questions he asks about a tax cut: "First of all, is it going to be broad-based? Is it going to affect a majority of residents?"

He also said he did not agree with the state's property tax cuts and the voter-approved reductions because the proposals didn't address the underlying problems. The voter-approved constitutional amendment, for example, didn't give as much tax relief, if any, to nonhomesteaded property.

Schrader also pushed for tying the sales tax hike to a schools property tax cut for a decade, which became a key selling point for the Penny for Pasco. And the Penny has helped the county improve roads and schools, and equip the Sheriff's Office with 345 new vehicles since 2005. It is expected to raise $29.5-million overall for 2008-09.

At a forum Aug. 12, he told the crowd he merely voted to put the sales tax question on the ballot, though he lauded the Penny for Pasco.

"The sheriff's department, I don't know where we'd be without the Penny for Pasco," Schrader said in an interview.

Nicolette's plan

But the fight over Schrader's record also raises some questions over how Nicolette would treat spending and growth at a time when shrinking taxes are a big issue.

For example, Nicolette advocates a tax relief fund to lower tax rates when property tax revenues are greater than the county planned. But for 2008, Pasco was on pace to collect $157-million, $4.5-million below its operating budget.

While his antitax stands would mean less revenue, Nicolette says he would plug the holes by looking closer at spending, saying he would help stop overspending by closely scrutinizing such problems as the budget-busting reclaimed water reservoir in Land O'Lakes. But the county money used to build it — utility fees — can't be used for general expenses, such as the Sheriff's Office.

Similar questions dog Nicolette's plans for handling growth.

His Web site flaunts a "longterm plan to eliminate Pasco's gridlock" but doesn't give it. After repeated requests by the Times, Nicolette campaign consultant Anthony Pedicini provided a list including:

• Road improvements, possibly by using new bond issues involving impact fees and Penny for Pasco revenue.

• Tighter restrictions on new development.

• Quicker and more efficient county planning.

• Drawing more money from the state and federal government.

But those financial sources have issues. The state government already is cutting spending. Issuing bonds based on impact fees can be difficult because the income stream can vary each year and isn't as reliable as annual fees and taxes. And bonding revenue from the Penny for Pasco, which ends in 2014, would go beyond what voters approved in a referendum.

"When you consider all of the up front costs to do a bond issue, to do one for five years or six years that would be left, it would be kind of tenuous," county budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said.

The campaign did not provide an explanation to the Times.

"He's willing to fabricate certain things to benefit himself, and to bend the truth, so to speak," Schrader said of Nicolette's attacks. "I think I certainly have the leadership skills, and he wants to call me a liberal?"

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.

Pasco County Commission hopefuls spar over tax stands 08/21/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 23, 2008 5:34pm]

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