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Battle against Alderman continues

Some people have hobbies. Joe Caetano has Ron Alderman.

For more than three years, Caetano has been a man obsessed. Long before TV cameras followed Hillsborough's property appraiser to local bars, Caetano was stalking him.

He has scanned property tax records, sifted through travel vouchers and written reams of letters demanding various public records.

Last year, Caetano became the focus of an investigation over allegations that he was trying to find incriminating evidence on Alderman to force him out of office, according to a Tampa police report. No one was ever charged.

Caetano says he even did a little surveilence work himself around the same time WFLA-Ch. 8 was catching Alderman in its TV lens.

He says he may even have had something to do with Channel 8's investigation that prompted a public apology from Alderman, though the reporter who did the stories denies that.

When those stories broke, Caetano appeared before the County Commission to demand that it ask Gov. Lawton Chiles to investigate. "It will be a stupid thing if you don't," he declared.

After the dust had settled and Alderman had apologized, Caetano seemed satisfied only a little. "He's not out of the woods as far as I'm concerned," he said.

All this started because Alderman raised Caetano's property assessment by 27 percent.

Most people would have given up by now. But most people aren't like Caetano, a fast-talking ex-Marine-turned-hairdresser who moved to Tampa Palms five years ago after stirring the political pot in a Boston suburb.

Why is he still at it?

"I enjoy it," Caetano says with a shrug. "I guess that's my hobby."

His hobby means spending his off-hours poring through records and banging out letters on his home computer. "I don't want to brag," Caetano says, "but I"m pretty good at what I do."

Too good, if you ask Alderman.

But don't bother because Alderman's not talking these days _ about Caetano or anything else.

After making a brief but humble appearance before the County Commission nearly two weeks ago, Alderman has managed to keep a low profile for an elected official whose face was on local television nearly every night for more than a week.

An Alderman aide said he's just not up to talking right now. Maybe later.

Alderman clearly has grown weary of Caetano. The most bizarre chapter in the Caetano-Alderman saga occurred in June 1991 when a civic gadfly told sheriff's investigators that Caetano was trying to "get something" on Alderman.

The investigation included secretly recorded conversations between Caetano and James Rowe. Caetano told him he "wanted anything that could be damaging or used against Alderman to discredit him," records show.

Caetano later backed out of the deal, however, and the investigation ended without any charges being filed. Caetano denied any wrong-doing and said he suspected he was being set up.

That episode, however, did not dampen Caetano's interest in Alderman.

The file of correspondence between Caetano and Alderman's office has grown to several inches.

The barrage of letters stopped earlier this year when Caetano started running against Alderman.

He soon dropped out of the property appraiser's race, switching to the race for County Commission District 2. He placed a distant third in the Sept. 1 Democratic primary.

Alderman, meanwhile, was re-elected to a second term without opposition.

Caetano said he gave up the property appraiser's race because he realized that running countywide was an expensive proposition.

But his campaign against Alderman continues; he's simply reverting to his previous approach of writing letters.

His latest effort is aimed at ending Alderman's practice of giving developers reduced assessments on unsold subdivision lots. It is a practice Caetano says is clearly illegal, but which Alderman's chief of appraisals says is an accepted practice nationwide.

Alderman's predecessor, Alton "Bud" Parker, stopped the practice, an official in the appraiser's office said. But it was reinstated when he was ousted by Alderman.

Caetano has written a letter to Gov. Lawton Chiles alerting him of the practice, and says he spoke to Chiles' legal counsel about it.

John Duddy, Alderman's chief appraiser who was televised frequenting bars during working hours, says Parker stopped the practice because he never understood appraising. Neither does Caetano, he says.

"He had the same problem with the concept as many other people who aren't appraisers," Duddy said of Parker.

A developer often sells a block of lots at once to a builder for a price well below market value, Duddy said. The values also fluctuate widely as the subdivision is built, he said.

If a developer had to pay taxes based on the market prices set by homeowners in the same subdivision, he would go broke quickly, Duddy says.

So assessments of lots owned by developers often are based on what might be called the wholesale value a builder would pay, Duddy said.

Caetano hasn't limited his complaints to assessments. He also has criticized some of Alderman's spending practices, including how he buys cars for his appraisers and how they are maintained. The cars could be bought cheaper through the state and maintained for less through the county's central maintenance facility, Caetano says.

Both issues are being discussed by Alderman and County Administrator Fred Karl in their efforts to reduce Alderman's 1993 budget.

Still, one thing Caetano can't do is reduce his own assessment. He appealed to the Property Appraisal Adjustment Board three years ago and lost. Alderman did lower the assessment by about $1,000, but not nearly enough by Caetano's estimates _ even though it still was assessed $50,000 below what he paid for it.

Caetano says he never calculated how much the higher assessment cost him in taxes. It never was the money that bothered him as the principle of the thing, Caetano says.

During his research, Caetano says he uncovered widespread inequities in property assessments. He has tried to get someone to look into it _ the governor, the Department of Revenue, the County Commission _ but no one will.

The peering television cameras may have left Alderman for now, but Caetano isn't going anywhere.

"I will continue on this," he said. "I won't rest until I see equity and uniformity. I'm not saying I want him out of office _ but maybe that's the best thing."