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Nehr's debts become campaign issue

TARPON SPRINGS — Banks have filed three lawsuits against state Rep. Peter Nehr in recent months as the Republican tries to balance his failing business with a run for re-election.

The freshman lawmaker has put his retail flag shop on Tarpon Springs' tourist strip up for sale. The trouble comes as he faces the opponent he narrowly defeated in 2006 to represent northeast Pinellas County and a part of Pasco County.

"I'm not blaming anybody," Nehr said Monday when asked about the lawsuits filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. "I take full responsibility for what I did. I got myself into this mess, and I will get myself out."

So far, attorneys and the 56-year-old lawmaker nearly settled one debt, but two banks say he is delinquent on loans and owes at least $45,500.

Nehr didn't include those liabilities in his financial disclosure form filed with the state for 2007. He said he wasn't aware of the discrepancy and would see if he needs to amend the form. He did list $147,300 in liabilities, including a mortgage, on the form.

The lawsuits are:

• In March, Advanta Bank Corp. sued Nehr and his flag business, American Spirit, claiming he owes close to $30,500 in credit card debt, attorney fees and interest. Nehr said he's working out a payment plan with the company.

• In June, Nehr paid Branch Banking & Trust at least $3,000 of the nearly $5,000 the bank sought from a 2001 loan for $25,000.

• Last week, SunTrust Bank sued Nehr and American Spirit, claiming he owes $15,000 from a 2001 loan for $20,000. Nehr said he was thought he had worked out a payment plan and only learned of the lawsuit Monday. He said the suit surprised him and he didn't know enough about it to comment.

The former Tarpon Springs commissioner said several factors have hurt his business, including: Construction along nearby Alt. U.S. 19 has decreased walk-by traffic; the economy has pinched his remaining customers' wallets; and rent on his space has jumped from $4,300 to $5,000 nine months ago. He estimates his business is down 55 percent from a year ago.

Nehr opened the shop specializing in flags and banners 17 years ago, shortly after he filed bankruptcy. It's located on Dodecanese Boulevard, which fronts the Sponge Docks.

A for-sale sign now sits in the store's window. Nehr said he's asking $125,000. In 2006, Nehr valued the business at $300,000 in his financial disclosure form. If he can't find a buyer, he'll liquidate next year, he said. After that, he's not sure what he'll do.

Nehr said he drew $16,500 from the store in 2007. He made another $31,980 as a state lawmaker that year.

"No matter what happens, I'm going to work out my debts," Nehr said.

His financial problems come to light in the midst of a tough battle for re-election.

Nehr is facing a rematch with Democrat Carl Zimmermann, a 57-year-old Palm Harbor resident and a Countryside High School teacher. Nehr defeated Zimmermann in 2006 by fewer than 1,500 votes, or 3 percent, despite the GOP's advantage in the district.

Zimmermann, said he knew about Nehr's previous bankruptcy but didn't make it an election issue "because people have problems sometimes."

Records of Nehr's 1991 bankruptcy filing weren't immediately available.

But Zimmermann says Nehr's new problems change that. Nehr "has a history of problems, and recent business problems demonstrate that," Zimmermann said. "He cannot manage money."

Nehr said he filed for bankruptcy in 1991 because he didn't have health insurance at the time and his youngest son, who is mentally handicapped, had a leg disease. He said he wasn't making much money at the time and felt the only way to get "a fair start" was to file.

He disputed Zimmermann's accusations, saying that while he makes his own decisions when managing his money, he has the help of the entire Legislature managing the state's money.

Nehr received the "Champion of Business" award earlier this year from the Associated Industries of Florida for his bill that made property tax assessments friendlier to businesses.

Nehr's debts become campaign issue 08/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2008 4:50pm]
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