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Finding taxing district trustees a real challenge

Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio is facing one of the toughest challenges of her brief tenure in office.

It's not a legal battle over the election to repeal Tampa's gay rights ordinance, nor is it accusations that someone tampered with ballots.

It's worse.

Iorio and her office are trying to recruit people to run for election to neighborhood special taxing districts.

The trustees of special taxing districts are the people who oversee and spend the annual fees paid by homeowners in certain subdivisions to keep the common areas mowed, the entry sign looking good and the buffer walls painted.

Because of the way the ordinances creating the districts are set up, those who serve actually have to run for election. At least they would have to run, if there were ever two candidates for the same seat, which there hardly ever are.

Not only aren't there contested elections, there often are not even enough candidates to fill all the open seats in each district.

It's not hard to understand why.

"I think at first people think it's just a volunteer civic thing to do. But the way these tax districts are set up, you're really quasi-government," Iorio said. "You have to fill out a financial disclosure form, your group has to comply with the Sunshine Law. The actual administration _ I have heard from many people who are turned off by all the paperwork requirements."

Iorio pauses. "I'm not doing a particularly good sell job."

Well, no. But at least she's being honest.

Thirty-four districts have seats to be filled in the Sept. 7 election, and it's a good bet that when Sept. 8 rolls around, there will still be plenty of empty spots.

"It's a thankless job," acknowledges Maryanne Ladutko, a trustee for the Tarawood Special Taxing District. Ladutko says it's not that bad, and that she spends only about an hour and a half a month on her post. She plans to run for another term but understands why it's hard to round up candidates.

"People are not going to give up their personal time to volunteer for a thankless, non-paying position, for which they have to file a disclosure," she said. "There's no big secret."

Even if some people are willing to give their time, government has managed to make the task so complicated that it requires an extra dose of motivation.

To qualify to serve on most taxing districts, candidates must collect signatures of 15 subdivision residents who are registered voters, pay the elections office 10 cents each to verify them, fill out a financial disclosure form and file a loyalty oath.

Kay Menzel, Iorio's administrative assistant, said she got a call from one exasperated woman complaining about the system.

"She said, "We have a difficult time finding people to do this and begging them to do this. I notice in your packet you expect us to petition. That just seems like a lot of bother, isn't there some other way?' "

Actually, no.

And once enough people are scraped together for the board, they don't just have to keep the grass mowed. They have to worry about things like arranging audits, submitting their budgets to the County Commission and paying for elections on questions such as whether tax assessments should be raised.

Districts that want to hold an election even have to deal with such rules as submitting their polling site to the U.S. Justice Department for approval, because Hillsborough County must meet special restrictions under the Voting Rights Act.

All this for a job whose main responsibility is neighborhood housekeeping.

Iorio says she thinks the system is reasonable for major developments with thousands of homes and lots of common areas such as Northdale. But she thinks it is unwieldy for smaller neighborhoods. Some taxing districts have as few as 60 homes.

Still, this is the system they have. And it was the residents who put themselves in this position.

"The residents had to want the establishment of this," Iorio said. "They had to sign enough petitions" to have a taxing district created. And somebody's got to take responsibility for the money in the pot.

Any volunteers?

Jennifer Orsi is the bureau chief of the Times' Carrollwood office.