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'Pleasant' Pasco commission race turns sour

When he began running for County Commission a year ago, citrus grower Ron Oakley met with the man he is trying to unseat, incumbent Commissioner Ted Schrader.

"I told him I would run a good campaign and a good race," Oakley said. "There were no promises made and no commitments made."

For months in the County Commission, District 1, open primary, the two men raised and spent big, but they largely focused on their own records. The worst accusation Oakley made was that his opponent is sometimes slow to respond to constituent concerns.

That tone has changed.

With only two weeks until the Aug. 14 election, Oakley's campaign has flooded voters' mailboxes with a flier calling Schrader "Taxing Ted." It added: "Ted Schrader has picked our pockets long enough. It's time he paid the price."

Oakley said he simply wanted to draw a contrast with his opponent.

"I just presented facts," he said. "There is a difference. You've got a fellow that's been taxing and known to be taxing, and you've got someone else that wants to cut taxes."

Schrader said the piece "is clearly a misrepresentation of my voting record."

"This just demonstrates that Ronnie can't be trusted," Schrader said. In meetings with east Pasco business owners, "he indicated to them that he was going to stay positive, he wasn't going to go negative."

Oakley responded: "I think he's gotten something mixed up between truthfulness and trustworthiness. I've been very truthful about my entire campaign, and I think I've had a very positive campaign."

The flier hit right before the start of early voting, which begins Saturday and lasts through Aug. 11. The winner-take-all contest is open to voters of all parties.

Until now, the toughest criticism came from a third candidate, Republican activist Rachel O'Connor. At a debate last month, she said Oakley and Schrader are part of the same "good old boy" network, and hinted they would use the office to enrich their personal fortunes. Both men rebuked that charge.

Just before the flier hit mailboxes, state Senate candidate Wilton Simpson of Trilby lauded the candidates for their positive tone.

"They're not mudslinging," Simpson said Tuesday morning. "It's pleasant actually. This is one of those things that voters say they want."

Simpson said he is friends with both Oakley and Schrader. His company gave $500 to Schrader's campaign, but he is not endorsing anyone in the race.

On Wednesday, Simpson sounded disappointed: "I don't like it that there was any negativity in the campaign. It's disappointing either one of them would go after each other."

Oakley's mailer includes six news clips from the Times, including a June 5 story after the all-Republican commission unanimously endorsed a higher property tax rate to make up for falling property values.

The so-called "roll back" rate has featured prominently in another commission race this year when a Tallahassee political committee sent mailers attacking District 5 Commissioner Jack Mariano for the same vote.

Both mailers equate the decision with raising property taxes. But neither mailer says the rate is designed to collect the same amount of revenue as the previous year. The tax rate is higher, but property values dropped by nearly 6 percent. Property owners — on average — would pay the same in taxes as the year before.

Whether individual property owners pay higher taxes, though, depends on their specific situation. Oakley said some property owners have told him the new rate will increase their taxes.

Schrader "thinks just because those taxes are near the same as they were the year before, then he didn't raise taxes," Oakley said. "But if you left (the tax rate the same), it would be less taxes."

Oakley's mailer doesn't include Schrader's comments from the June article that he would reduce the rate if Pasco and other Florida counties win a court battle with the Legislature over a new Medicaid billing law that will cost the county $4 million. Schrader said Wednesday that commissioners will try to find other savings to adopt a slightly lower rate when the budget takes effect Oct. 1.

Schrader said he was the "strongest proponent" to include a property tax reduction in the initial round of the Penny for Pasco sales tax, which voters approved in 2004. So far, that has reduced school property taxes by about $70 million. He also said he repeatedly voted to lower the county's property tax rate during boom times.

He said he will "respond accordingly" to Oakley's flier, but he hasn't decided when a rebuttal would be released.

"I'm confident the voters will see through this charade," he said. "They're just sick and tired of seeing misrepresentations being laid out. They want to find solutions."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

'Pleasant' Pasco commission race turns sour 08/01/12 [Last modified: Monday, October 15, 2012 3:14pm]
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