As he finishes his first term, Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano says he built a record to be proud of: fighting for spending cuts, better utility service and innovative ways to build parks.
"We're going to look to keep trying to improve the county's efficiency," he said.
But Democratic opponent Ginny Miller says Mariano's decisions show he deserves something else: the boot. She argues Mariano's judgment on key development decisions put taxpayers on the hook for bills for expensive roads and lawsuits.
Miller, 49, a teacher and former New Port Richey City Council member, has trailed the Republican Mariano in fundraising. She raised $13,600 through Oct. 10 to Mariano's $77,500.
But Republican Party leaders identified Mariano's race as tougher than others in the county. He won by less than 2 percentage points in 2004 against incumbent Democrat Peter Altman.
Mariano, 48, a former car salesman, has seized a role promoting sports tourism in the county. He is an advocate for the long-delayed, $7.9-million tennis stadium in Wesley Chapel. He also supports a potential $30-million sports complex of replica baseball fields.
He also took a hard line against big spending increases requested by Sheriff Bob White in 2007 as the county dealt with mandated reductions in property taxes.
At the same time, Mariano racked up nearly $10,000 in travel bills during his tenure — by far the most on the board — but said it ended up saving residents money. After going to one conference, Pasco was able to land a $130,000 grant to clear out intrusive Brazilian peppers.
But Miller says Mariano has made bad decisions showing a lack of concern for what's fair.
Mariano was part of 3-2 commission majority approving the massive Wiregrass Ranch development. That plan makes taxpayers shoulder $42-million in road construction in the development, a compromise that could set a precedent for future developers to get more taxpayer help for the streets.
Mariano said the economic development of a major new mall made it worthwhile, and highways such as State Road 56 are being widened more quickly than originally planned.
In 2006, the board followed Mariano's lead and voted 3-2 against allowing Metro Development to build 78 homes in Hudson in Mariano's northwest Pasco district. Mariano said project didn't fit the area.
A court overturned the decision and saying the board didn't follow its own rules but the "whims and desires for development in his geographic district." After the judge's decision, the board voted 4-1 in 2007 to allow the project. Mariano dissented.
Mariano has gone after Miller's record, too. He questioned the value of New Port Richey buying two churches for $4.15-million and the old Hacienda Hotel for $2.2-million. The city planned to resell the properties as part of downtown redevelopment efforts.
The real estate downturn put the kibosh on that.
"Her decisions to go buy the two churches and the hotel — what return did she get for her taxpayers?" Mariano asked.
One problem: Miller wasn't on the council when the churches were purchased. She did vote to buy the hotel.
"Once again, Jack's wrong," Miller said, adding that her only role was trying to unload the church purchases.
As for the Hacienda, she defends the purchase because a development group is still exploring how to reinvigorate it.
Seizing on the need to redevelop older neighborhoods, Miller has proposed the city's practice of creating a redevelopment zone. New Port Richey declared its city "blighted," allowing it to use additional tax revenue to improve neighborhoods and business areas.
But in an interview with Times, she said "a great deal of the money" was disproportionately going to central Pasco. County officials acknowledge much attention and funding went the fast-growing area. But many of those dollars come from fees paid in central Pasco, and must be used on projects there.
Mariano also noted that some of the extra tax money the city collects for redevelopment efforts would otherwise have gone to the county. So applying the policy at the county level has diminished benefits. On that and other issues, he said she needs to pay better attention to details.
"Maybe if Ginny had read as much as I have," Mariano said, "she'd be more informed."
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.