It didn't surprise me when Texas hotshot Tommy Gonzalez turned down the offer to run Pasco County government. Imagine a guy making 400 grand getting his first look at the simple office where John Gallagher presided for three decades. Gonzalez's chair in Irving probably cost more than all of Gallagher's furniture.
And try as they may, I'm guessing the county commissioners courting Gonzalez couldn't keep him (and, more importantly, his wife) from slipping over to the U.S. 19 corridor. You can't hold him at Saddlebrook or Wiregrass forever. Pasco has some lovely pockets, but the place where most of the people live and where Gonzalez would go to work every day is depressed.
I've lived in west Pasco for 30 years, and for the most part I've enjoyed my subdivision. But every day when I leave it, the first thing I see is a neon sign advertising "adult'' movies. When I drive to work, I pass pawnshops and vacant strip centers. One long-abandoned store takes up an entire block and serves as a hangout for homeless guys, hookers and graffiti artists.
County leaders know they have to fix this. They have discussed strategies for attracting business, incentives for improving properties. They gave the U.S. 19 corridor a name: the Harbors, reflecting the proximity to the main drawing card that attracted so many people in the first place, the Gulf of Mexico. But this blight didn't occur overnight and it won't be cured easily, if at all.
It will take concentration and money for code enforcement and legal battles. And therein lies the problem. Tommy Gonzalez is a smart guy. He came from an economy insulated by oil and walked into a building that said cheap. He looked around, weighed a cut in pay and quickly recognized that almost every challenge he would have to face here stemmed from the last half-dozen years of recession that drained the county treasury. He would inherit employees who haven't had a raise in all that time. Services have been cut.
He ran back to Texas and commissioners hired their second choice, Michele Baker, who had been Gallagher's chief assistant.
She would have been my first choice. She has demonstrated excellence in every position with the county over 20 years and enjoys solid credibility. Plus, this is her home. She knows its problems and its potential. She understands the urgency of reversing west Pasco's reputation.
The question now is whether commissioners will give her the tools to succeed.
Commissioners got an earful the other day from residents trying to head off a proposed 8 percent property tax increase. Most were polite, some angry, rude and threatening. The mailbag held several more suggestions where commissioners could put their tax hike.
The protesters will have more to say during the next few months before commissioners adopt a new budget and consider whether to increase the gas tax to improve local roads. We'll hear from real people who have suffered through the worst bust in my lifetime. We'll hear from retirees who can barely make ends meet. And, of course, we'll hear from those who see political opportunity in preaching no new taxes at any cost.
This is where commissioners earn their money. They know that failure to broaden the tax base will lead to further cuts and deterioration. In the end, I'm confident they will take seriously their pledge to make this a "premier'' county.