For the first time in 16 years, Pasco voters will cast ballots to select the person responsible for producing the county's property tax rolls. Four-term incumbent Republican Mike Wells, 65, faces his first challenge since 1996 from Walter Price, a private appraiser in Land O'Lakes. The winner of this Republican primary faces Democrat Allison S. Newlon in November.
Price, 30, eager and energetic, is basing his campaign on his certification as an appraiser and a criticism of Wells for missing an economic forecast a year ago. At the time, the incumbent predicted real estate values had hit bottom. Instead, the decline continued for the just-certified tax rolls used by local governments to prepare their budgets.
It's weak reasoning to replace an exceptional public servant. Wells, a former two-term county commissioner, is more than a government service provider; he is a civic institution whose fingerprints are all over the county.
The parks and libraries that have so enhanced the quality of life in Pasco County exist because of his initiative. Wells, as a first-term commissioner in the mid 1980s, sought voter approval for a new property tax to build the library branches and network of recreation centers and community parks that now grace the county. Likewise, Wells championed Pasco's first mass transit system, and he and the board modernized the county's waste disposal and sewage treatment systems.
Wells left the commission in 1992 and won the appraiser's seat four years later. Since then, he and his office have come to symbolize government efficiency. A staff that formerly numbered 72 full-time employees has been reduced to 50 people, three of whom work part-time. As government revenues declined, so, too did Wells' budget without a noticeable drop in service. The nearly $4.9 million budget of five years ago is down to $4.1 million, a 16 percent reduction, that can be attributed to hard-working employees and new technology.
The reliance on technology is nothing new. The property appraiser was a leader at the government center in embracing the digital age and his office developed its own website to provide appraisal and exemption information to residents, businesses and real estate professionals. Later, it made deeds available on the Internet when the then-circuit court clerk declined to do so. The website went on line in 1999, and last year received 1.7 million unique visits.
Wells' office also is vigorous in searching out homestead fraud and in defending the public against large corporations unfairly trying to chisel down their tax bills by challenging assessments without merit. It mirrors his responsible stewardship of the public purse. "I'm stingy with your money,'' he tells people, pointing out he personally approves all public expenditures over $100, signs every check in the office, and requires three bids or state contract pricing on every item costing more than $500.
Candidates for public office routinely run on promises to weed out unspecified waste, fraud and abuse. Wells stands out as an accomplished elected official who already does.
The Times strongly recommends Republican voters select incumbent Property Appraiser Mike Wells as the party's nominee in the Aug. 14 primary.