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Year in review: Amid tough times, little change in county government

Foreclosures spread. Tax revenue shrank, causing Pasco County government services to be clipped. Road projects buckled and building projects foundered on choked roads.

This toxic stew for incumbent politicians in 2008 didn't seem to matter.

Three members of the Pasco County Commission won re-election, as did Sheriff Bob White and Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. Nobody even ran against Property Appraiser Mike Wells and Tax Collector Mike Olson. All the state and federal lawmakers stayed the same, too. The closest thing to change was chief deputy Paula O'Neil winning the race to replace her retiring boss, Clerk of Circuit Court Jed Pittman.

"We really work well," Commissioner Pat Mulieri noted as the year closed with board members wishing all a Merry Christmas.

While commissioners Jack Mariano and Ann Hildebrand won narrow victories, the most brutal campaign came in Commissioner Ted Schrader's re-election during the August primary.

Challenger John Nicolette, a former friend and fellow Republican, blasted away at Schrader's record, sometimes levying attacks without the underpinning of fact. For example, Nicolette accused Schrader of forgiving $170,000 in fines on a developer who illegally cleared trees near Zephyrhills. Schrader wasn't even in office when the case happened.

Schrader won by 15 percentage points. He was unopposed in the November election.

In another high profile race, the sheriff won a third term by weathering attacks from Republican challenger Bobby Sullivan, then defeating Democrat Kim Bogart. Sullivan, a former vice and narcotics commander, hit White with questions over favoritism and spending decisions during the sheriff's tenure. Bogart echoed those themes.

Four years after cleaning up with a 63,000-vote victory, White won by just 4,000 votes in November.

The only major personality leaving office did it as a victory lap. Pasco Republican Party Chairman Bill Bunting decided not to seek re-election after defeating former lawmaker John Renke II to become state committeeman, a post on the state party's governing board. Randy Maggard, a businessman from Zephyrhills, took over as chairman.

But Democratic Party chairwoman Alison Morano won another term, despite her party being swept in elections.

With politics hovering, the county's budget vetting lacked the sparring between the board and the sheriff of the year before. Elected officials avoided spats that could be campaign fodder.

Maybe there wasn't enough money.

With tax money and fees on new construction tanking, the annual budget went from $1.2-billion last year to $980-million for 2008-09.

The downturn prompted a ban on annual raises, a near-freeze on hiring and the layoff of 14 workers in the building inspections and permitting divisions. The layoffs were the first in 26 years.

The tight times even prompted study of a ban on hiring people who smoke to save health care costs.

Even White, who memorably compared his agency to developing nation in 2007, cut $1.1-million from his budget.

Despite the downturn, the county did press ahead with a few notable projects.

A $7.5-million regional hurricane shelter in Hudson was green-lighted after months of delays. Named for its chief sponsor, state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, it will have 1,000 beds.

The financial crunch also pressed Pasco into action in other ways. With little money to add park services, the county began exploring whether to build a large complex of replica professional baseball fields. It would be operated by a private company.

And the rash of foreclosures resulted in federal housing officials allotting $19.5-million for the county to reduce vacant homes this year in the aftermath of the housing boom.

Still, some things didn't change.

A $7.9-million tennis complex in Wesley Chapel remained undone. County officials were trying to finish a deal with Saddlebrook Resort officials to run it — continuing the project's lot in life since 2002.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.

Year in review: Amid tough times, little change in county government 12/31/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 8:00pm]
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