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For years of service, a final bow // PROPERTY APPRAISER

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Property Appraiser Les Samples, Hernando County's longest-serving elected official, stepped down from his job Tuesday night after 21{ years in office.

Samples, appointed property appraiser by then-Gov. Reubin Askew in 1975, announced his plans to retire and not seek re-election a year ago. He has turned over the reins to fellow Republican Alvin R. Mazourek, who won a decisive victory over Spring Hill real estate broker John Kouba in the general election.

"It's going to be different after today, that's for sure," Samples said Tuesday. "Every day after today will be Saturday."

On a more serious note, he added, "After 21 and a half years, sure, it's going to be sad going away. We've had some longtime employees. It's a little bit of a traumatic day for them as well as for me."

Samples, 67, is a native of Centerville, Ohio. He moved to Florida in the 1950s to work in the real estate and appraisal business.

Before becoming county property appraiser, he worked in the state auditor general's office and as an area supervisor for ad valorem taxes with the state Department of Revenue.

In July 1975, Gov. Askew appointed Samples, then a Democrat, to fill the unexpired term of Thelma Wimberley, who retired because of poor health.

Among his first tasks were resolving a dispute involving citrus grove valuations and getting tax bills to property owners on time.

He also set out to modernize the office, purchasing computers to replace a manual system of recording property information on metal tags. In the late 1980s, the office installed a state-of-the-art Geographic Information Systems computer program to provide more accurate mapping of properties.

"I was part of the move to bring the Hernando County Property Appraiser's Office into the 20th century, the computer age, if you may," he said, citing that as his biggest accomplishment.

During his long career, Samples watched the county evolve from a small population with a predominantly agricultural economy into a fast-growing retiree community fueled mainly by construction and services.

When he first became property appraiser, Samples recalled, Deltona Corp.'s Spring Hill development was seven years old. The county had a population of about 18,000 and collected taxes of $200-million. Today the county has an estimated population of 121,000 and collects taxes of $3.5-billion.

Samples often kept a low profile, avoiding public disputes with county commissioners and state officials.

But his career has not always been free of controversy.

His critics have described him as Brooksville good old boy, giving favorable assessments to his friends while overestimating properties on the county's west side.

Samples, a man with a brusque manner and biting wit, also has been accused of arrogance.

"If arrogance is knowing what you're doing, then I'm arrogant," he said. "Whoever is not in office thinks that whoever is in office is the good old boy. Like I've told many people, "I'm one of you. I'm from someplace else too, but I got here before you.' . . . I've been fair to everyone."

Samples has said his decision to retire had nothing to do with a bitter legal dispute between his office and residents of Timber Pines, a private retiree community east of U.S. 19.

Timber Pines residents have filed three lawsuits against Samples since 1993. They say Samples undervalued other county properties while discriminating against Timber Pines, targeting the development with higher taxes.

Samples has argued that Timber Pines was underassessed until 1993 and now is in line with the rest of the county. The assessments, raised by an average of 30 percent in 1993, reflect amenities within Timber Pines, such as a guardhouse and golf courses, Samples said.

He has appealed the three years of suits, and the case has yet to go to trial. Samples said he has no regrets about his handling of the matter.

Despite his unpopularity with Timber Pines residents, Samples is generally well regarded in the industry.

His peers last year elected him president of the Florida Association of Property Appraisers.

Brooksville real estate broker and appraiser Robert A. Buckner has had many dealings with Samples and his office over the years.

He credits Samples for bringing "technological advancement" to the property appraiser's office.

"I think he has been an outstanding property appraiser," Buckner said. "His office has consistently been one of the most efficient and effective in county government (statewide)."

For the past several weeks Samples has been helping to ease Mazourek into his new job, introducing him to staff, changing over accounts and dispensing advice.

"He's the new kid on the block," Samples said. "I took him on the payroll about Nov. 18 so that it wouldn't be a completely cold turkey deal. . . . I told him you need to have broad shoulders, thick skin and a short memory, and you shouldn't have any problems."

Samples said he intends to spend his retirement golfing, woodworking and traveling the country in his motor home with his wife, Gayle Samples, the former chairwoman of the board of trustees for Lykes Memorial Hospital and past chair of the Republican Executive Committee. The Samples are longtime Brooksville residents and have three grown sons.

He said he may also do some consulting work. "The people will know I'm around," he said.

_ Times researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this report, which contains information from Times files.